Automated palletizing pays off

The massive labor shortage apparently has no end in sight, especially when it comes to labor-intensive industries. According to some calculations, the warehousing industry alone should provide almost half a million jobs. Those who traditionally held these positions are retiring or quitting en masse, and younger generations are not turning to work that is often boring, dirty or dangerous.

Moving down, one of the most labor-intensive jobs in the warehouse or manufacturing shop is still palletizing. For that reason, it’s one of the best areas to target your automation dollars, says Joe CampbellSenior Director of Strategic Marketing and Application Development at Universal Robots.

“Palletizing has been an easy fruit for years,” he says. “If you have openings for these jobs, you’re probably not filling them.”

This reluctance to take on the palletizing task from humans has resulted in a boon for their robot counterparts. Although not a new technology or concept, semi-automatic and fully automated palletizing are now enjoying high popularity and adoption. It is also evolving towards more sophisticated equipment capable of managing end-to-end palletizing and depalletizing operations.

“The desire to work in manual jobs is at an all-time low,” says Witron. Norman Leonhardt, director of business development. “At Modex recently, it was all about automation this year. In the past, this was not always the case. »

Moreover, where employees resisted automation and robots, they now welcome them into collaborative roles. “Interest is at an all-time high,” says Josh Cloer, sales manager at Mujin. “The situation evolved into a question of, ‘Can you do this job without automation?'”

All this makes the return on investment (ROI) not much of an issue, and a faster process as well. There’s never been a better time to justify automated palletizing equipment.

Overcome Challenges

While many advances have been made in the capabilities of palletizing and depalletizing equipment, the biggest challenge in integrating it into your processes is still the fact that it is best suited for high volume operations and weak mixture.

“It’s more difficult if you have a combination of high mix and low volume,” says Campbell. “And production runs can vary widely based on market demand, which adds another layer of complexity.”

Today’s heavy e-commerce operations do not fit the thinly diversified side of the profile, which has led to innovation and improvement in this regard.

Cloer says Single SKU Pallets is a simple and proven application for automated palletizing. But creating orders with a variety of SKUs remains the most complicated solution.

“You need an upstream automated system that can buffer and sequence cases,” says Cloer. “There are a lot of things that go into the process. We used software and 3D vision to request the appropriate sequence from the upstream automation. Then robots can buffer and re-sequence to build multi-SKU pallets.

Palletizing equipment is starting to become more flexible and following the evolution of the industry. “We’re seeing more flexible solutions that can adapt to these varying environments,” says Campbell.

Depalletizing equipment is once again driven by the rise of e-commerce and the shortage of available labour.

Collaborative palletizing by “cobots” is one example, and Campbell says it’s an area that’s experiencing explosive growth. “You can set up very flexible and redeployable palletizing cells from line to line, depending on your production mix,” he explains. “They’re easy to set up and act more like a tool that you deploy if something goes wrong.”

Leonhardt agrees that flexibility is essential today. “We keep it simple,” he says. “We have a robotic arm that pushes the pallets to a predefined location. The palletizer can handle any size crate, bag or box.

If you’re considering a LEGO set, you get an idea of ​​the flexibility of Witron products, says Leonhardt. “Every case is different and there’s a lot of sorting out ahead of time,” he says. “It’s very precise and automated work so that the crates arrive on the pallet at the right time and are ordered for assembly.”

The types of customers these solutions are ideal for include retailers, food and beverage manufacturers, grocery and consumer goods manufacturers.

The role of technology

Software integration – and increasingly artificial intelligence and machine learning – is playing a bigger role in automated palletizing. Universal Robots, for example, recently partnered with Right-handed robotics to power a three-robot system that provides an item handling solution that works with various material handling solutions like Automated Storage and Retrieval (AS/RS) systems. The hardware platform and AI together provide easy configuration of sources, destinations, and workflows. Performance can exceed over 1,200 units per hour with a reliability rate of over 99.5%.

There are also cobots designed for heavier payloads. Universal Robots has built-in palletizing programming that works with a conveyor and gripper. The gripper operates in a plug-and-play configuration that the company sees as a complete ecosystem allowing for smoother palletizing and automation.

Witron also offers end-to-end solutions. “The palletizers are integrated into the entire warehouse management system (WMS) and connected through the entire distribution center,” says Leonhardt.

It can look like sequencing in storage to make sure products get to the palletizer at the right time and on the right order. “The WMS manages redundancy, forecast information, travel speed, etc. says Leonhardt. “The palletizer is the end of the assembly line.”

Witron can also track what a pallet looks like – its condition, its stability, if the stretch film is doing its job or if it needs adjusting. Additionally, since Witron works closely with the grocery industry, it also tracks every product in its system through to purchase order, expiration dates, whether fresh or frozen. This ensures that products arrive on the palletizer in the correct condition for shipment.

Depalletization and ROI

While palletizing is making progress, it is the elder of depalletizing, which is now gaining momentum in manufacturing and warehousing. Honeywell Intelligrated, who has been in the palletizing space for 20 years, has evolved the equipment over time.

“It all started with stationary and static in-line palletizers,” explains Thomas Evans, robotics technology manager, “that worked with single-layer products. Since then, we’ve made systems smarter with artificial intelligence or machine learning algorithms that give robots the intelligence to individually select and place objects. »

It all comes down to customer demands and needs, Evans adds. “We are creating evolving technology and product line to increase flexibility and adapt to what we see in the market.”

A big part of that now is depalletizing equipment, driven again by the rise of e-commerce and the shortage of available labor. “If we present a smart, flexible depalletizer that can handle variation, it can make a huge difference in productivity,” says Evans. “It adds stability to your shift. The robot’s “worker” is reliable, and you can rely on it to work at a very specific plus or minus of your desired rate. »

Basically, says Evans, a depalletizer might be able to handle between 500 and 800 packages per hour. Managed manually and that number drops to between 300 and 600. “If you’re constantly working towards that higher return, it’ll only take a few years to develop a return on investment,” he explains. “It’s attractive to customers.”

Universal also has a collaborative depalletizer project with Mujin. “We have a mixed unit load depalletizer,” says Campbell. “It can handle a dozen different products from different manufacturers, stacked randomly, even at odd angles, and still identify where to depalletize in the correct boxes.”

If you plan to use a depalletizer in a fully automated environment, this may include a conveyor that delivers pallets to the robot, or even an autonomous vehicle to do the same. Additionally, 2D and 3D cameras and custom software can tell the robot where to go to retrieve the package safely and intact.

Overall, the ROI rate of palletizing and depalletizing will have a wide range. “A single SKU operation is easily justified,” says Cloer. “With a mixed SKU operation, the robotic piece of the puzzle requires a big investment, but there’s still a lot of return.”

Traditionally, a two-year payback on an investment in a palletizer was typical and considered justified. “This number is changing and accelerating due to labor shortages,” Cloer says. “Automation keeps your supply chain resilient, and it’s a worthwhile return on investment.”

Leonhardt explains that proving ROI is a different calculus than in the past. “It’s going to vary depending on your situation and your location,” he says. “But they can return the investment unexpectedly.”

Building denser pallets, for example, can help reduce transportation costs. Stable pallets that do not fall off are another small gain. Building pallets that enable orderly unloading at retailers increases accuracy and speed, as does reducing picking errors when machines replace humans.

From Campbell’s perspective, collaborative palletizers are the way of the future. “They go into environments that traditional robots couldn’t,” he says. “We are innovating with these collaborative efforts, entering markets that could not contemplate this type of automation in the past.”

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