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The UK packaging industry has not embraced the articulated arms of robots with quite the same ardour as the US, Japan and many other European countries, notably Germany and Sweden. Louise Hunt looks at how partnership agreements between robot and packaging machinery manufacturers may just open doors

The high cost of robotics technology has become a stock answer as to why take-up here has been slow in comparison to the rest of the industrialised world. In fact Britain rests in 10th place. But, as the price of robot automation has plummeted at around 70% over the last two years, the underlying reason may have deeper roots in the way the nation shops and with whom.

Some industry sources suggest that the supermarket culture that seems to dominate our lives may be what is keeping an army of robots off our shores.

Supermarkets, being the temples of choice and convenience to which we devotedly flock, require constant change to keep us hungry for more. And constant change, of course, means that when the product buyer barks for multiples or mini-ranges the packaging supplier must, as things currently stand, bend in that direction or lose out on the contract.

‘The only constant in life is change’. This may well be the motto of the packaging machinery buyer who considers the proposition of advanced technology that could transform the packing line and finally decides that not enough is known beyond the next six months to justify the investment.

It may even be that far from the showroom, on the hallowed land of the golf course, one manufacturer may whisper to another that there is not much incentive to invest in automation because any resulting profits are swallowed by supermarkets which then drive down product prices.

In countries where more emphasis is placed on the branded product rather than the brand of the retailer – most notably in the US – production tends to favour longer volumes and therefore is a ripe environment for long-term technology investment.

It follows then that current opportunities for robotics in packaging are most likely to be with the multinational brands. Derek Pasquire sales director, automated systems, at Motoman Robotics shares the belief that the short-term philosophy is hampering UK packaging robotisation.

“Other European manufacturers have a much more positive attitude to robotics and seek to maximise output from their facilities, often by exploiting their flexibility and this puts them in good stead to remain competitive for the short and longer term futures.

“The motor industry in the UK has learnt this lesson through overseas investment many years ago and now stands competitive with the rest of the world. It is also true to say that multinationals outside of the motor industry are also making the same progress but many UK nationals appear to stay with the short-term minimum investment view.”

However, rather than this being the result of contracts or even economy, he suggests that it is more a lack of awareness of new technologies and a lack of encouragement at govern-mental level.

He adds that John D Angelillo Motoman, managing director and national co-ordinator for the International Federation of Robotics, has recently written to prime minister Tony Blair on this subject. He stressed the need for government to improve its support of the manufacturing industry and to assist with the development of automation through education linked with industry.

The latest research from BARA (the British Automation and Robotics Association) indicates that more manufacturers are waking up to the benefits of robots. With just under 2000 robot installations, last year saw figures at their highest level in any one year since records began in 1978.

The automotive industry may take a hefty three quarter chunk of these installations, but there has also been a notable increase in the food and drink industries due to technical advances in palletising and packaging robots, says BARA chairman Ken Young.

After a steep ascent along a learning curve, robot manufacturers are now adapting systems more used to gracefully spray painting logos on car bodies to the frenetic world of fmcg packaging.

Technology that, in the past may have been seen as an overkill on functionality, has been transformed into faster, lighter systems typically with reduced payloads and number of axes. Improvements in processing speeds through sophisticated drive technology also means robots are better able to match the production rates required. PC language-based software should mean robot pro-gramming is not such a daunting task.

Robots need no longer be cumbersome giants squashed into packing lines. Improvements in space efficiency are achieved by integrating electrical parts on top rather, elim-inating the need for additional panels.

Gripper systems have evolved to handle the vast array of packaging applications that they may face with many offering modular systems that can be taken apart and rebuilt like Lego. The incorporation of vision sys-tems that allow robots to intelligently pick and place products also take robots a step beyond conventional automated packaging machines.

Ironically, it appears that robots can now offer just the flexibility that the supermarkets demand. An additional factor for growing take-up is the combination of decreasing technology costs and increasing labour costs.

Consequently, robots are slowly but surely being used in increasing numbers for end-of-line palletising applications. A trend is also emerging to apply smaller, faster machines in the case and tray packing areas.

“It is here that the robot is very well suited to cope with repetitive and often boring tasks and has the ability to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Where production rates permit, it is possible to extend the function of the robot by combining both packing and palletising operations with a single machine and, occasionally, even extend the robot’s function further to include case erection as well,” says Derek Pasquire.

Partnerships between robot manu-facturers and traditional packaging machinery manufactures are helping to extend these possibilities. Bradman Lake is one example of a packaging machinery company that has linked arms with the robot industry.

Chief executive Graham Hayes explained how robots are helping the multinational company to evolve from a carton machine producer to a total product handling solution provider.

Last September partnership agreements were made with robot manufacturer ABB and Propack Processing and Packaging Systems for its vertical racetrack robotic loading system to produce a complete automated topload cartoning solution.

Launched at Interpack 2002, the LJ Series consists of the 500 and 700 vertical racetrack collating and loading systems which can be combined with Bradman Lake’s 2/60 and HS 2/60 carton erectors and three-flap closers running at up to 180cpm. For a fully integrated topload system in the US, an alliance has been made with Klöckner Tevopharm whose flowrappers can match the very high speeds required in that market. In Europe, where production speeds are lower, the LJ Series can be teamed with a number of flowwrapping machines. In operation, a servo-driven infeed conveyor takes individual wraps and transfers them into a conveyor with up to three trains of indexing pockets. When all its pockets are filled, the first train accelerates forward to the robotic loading station. The next train then moves into position in an apparently seamless motion.

Formed cartons are transferred from the erector into the LJ Series Top Loader. These are then united with the product by the now eminent ABB FlexPicker using vacuum or mechanical gripper end-of-arm tooling which picks up a designated quantity of packs and places them into the waiting cartons. The multi-axis FlexPicker with its inverted spider design was chosen over articulated arm robots for its light construction to aid faster production.

Single or multiple layers can be built up in the cartons which are automatically released into the lid closer. Smaller count retail cartons can be produced as well as larger count display cartons with upper panels pulled back to create header displays.

The LJ Series runs at up to 750 products/min making it one of the fastest toploaders around. Possible applications include chocolate and health bars, frozen meat portions and sachets. So far 31 orders have been placed, with one Canadian confec-tionery company using the LJ500 to produce 1500 bars/min with a twin-lane infeed from two.

While toploaders are gaining popularity as the simplest way of filling a carton, some customers still prefer endload cartoners for multi-packs, says Graham Hayes. For this reason Bradman Lake developed its SL600 intermittent endload cartoner with special infeed system, which, in the US, is allowing 36 bar collations from a LJ Series unit to be inserted.

Bradman Lake also launched at Interpack the SL904 2-axis gantry robot, produced in-house. It is designed to save space over conventional endloaders with the overhead robot product inserter mounted above the body to give it a slimline footprint. Access to the load area is also said to be improved, while servo drives offer speeds up to 160cpm.

For Bradman Lake, robots are the missing link to the progress made over the last seven years with its servo-driven, computer-controlled cartoning machines. Although, cartoning speeds of around 300 products/min can be achieved, the need for manual loading into carton machine infeeds has held the machines back from their full potential, now being realised by auto-mated and integrated robot systems.

ABB was chosen for its established standardised robotics system. “The fact that a robotics programmer is no longer necessary with standard systems opens up enormous opportunities for end-of-line packaging machinery.

“In theory, the ABB partnership agreement allows Bradman Lake to get into palletising rather than stop at casepacking,” says Mr Hayes.

But the company is not alone in offering toploading robots for cartoning, SIG Pack has recently launched the SIGTTL family for secondary packaging.

The 2-axis TopLoading robot with a 42kg payload places products into secondary cartons using a range of cartoning modules, including the SIGTTF erector, the SIGTTC closer and SIGTTV lidder. These modules can be placed directly onto the TopLoader platform to form the TTL-I (integrated) for a small footprint and accessibility. Loading is up to 35 cartons/min.

Depending on items being packed, up to 800 products/min can be handled. New control technology from Rockwell Automation is said to make the machines easier to programme.

For a complete line, SIG Pack can also team its pick and place Delta robot, similar in design to the ABB FlexPicker, with the integrated toploading cartoning machine and flowrappers.

When asked what the difference might be between the ABB and SIG technology Frank-Peter Kirgis product manager SIG Robotics explains it is in the controls. Rather than standard control technology, SIG works with its own open-architecture, PC-based controls that it believes offers more flexibility for different applications.

Future developments are likely to centre on the open architecture controls as the company works on de-veloping mechanisms that will enable it to move into more new applications, including pharmaceuticals.

Motoman Robotics is another company working with a number of packaging machinery manufacturers to develop complete solutions, one of these companies being Endoline for its case erecting and sealing systems.

The robotics manufacturer offers 3, 6, 20 and 50kg capacity robots for integration into traditional production lines. A single robot cell can pack up to 25 case layers/min. If higher rates are needed then a twin robot cell equipped with rapid case transfer can pack up to 50 layers/min.

A recent installation that united three of these robot cells was made at Wrexham-based Calypso Soft Drinks to pack Tetra Pak 200 and 250ml cartons and aseptic cup drinks cartons.

The company needed an automated solution for packing multiple case sizes and decided on a robot solution as the existing layer palletising machine was found not to be cost or space efficient in this instant.

Robots based on four Tetra Pak lines are said to have enabled significant improvements in efficiency. In one case, an SV-3 robot for placement of 85ml cuplet drinks into outer boxes has allowed line speed to be increased by 25%. In another, the cell has succeeded in automating the palletisation of 56 different product and pack size combinations onto shipping pallets.

Calypso engineering manager John Ball commented: “With hindsight we were embarking on a very ambitious project. However, it made sense to apply automation to areas of production that, while they are essential, do not add any value to the product. On cuplet packing especially, it was very labour intensive with up to six people needed to pack cartons.”

“The key lesson that we have learnt is that if we provide the robot with consistent quality in terms of the way its work is presented, then it will perform extremely well.

“We now have a system in which people have complete confidence and which is accepted by the workforce. It has allowed us to redeploy a number of people to tasks where they add value to the end product”.

With so much emphasis now placed on packs with added value, perhaps it will be this ability that will enable justification of robot technology to filter down to smaller packaging companies and those dealing with supermarkets.