The use of robots in the packing and palletising area of factories has increased rapidly over the last few years with clear lines of approach when looking at project work says Cermex managing director Dick South

There are still areas where conventional packers and palletisers have their part to play and this is usually handling most regular shaped products or on the faster lines for palletising.

Even so there are numerous robots in use now with many of the major blue chip companies and there is no doubt that robots have shown that they do provide greater flexibility than conventional machines and are filling the need from the market.

Robots come into their own on the more difficult product such as flow wraps, multi-packs, pouches and bottles. Some plastics bottle designs can only be packed using robots due to their shape and the softness of the side walls, let alone the high speed involved in their filling and the difficulties of collating them.

On some lines in the whisky trade it is necessary to pack bottles and cartons on the same lines and this is also an area where robots excel. As mentioned above flow wraps pose certain problems especially when running at 750/min off two flow wrappers. Robots can combine two of these machines into one packing machine using racetrack technology.

Lack of product consistency is a major problem and this has been shown in handling flow wraps and multi-packs where the amount of air in the packs varies enormously. In addition, the packing of tubs of confectionery products is also the easiest of subjects.

The trays for tubs are a special design with slots in the top side for the tubs to be loaded into. The tubs are quite soft and are not easy to pick up when the accuracy of pick up and placement required is high. Robots can get over some of the more difficult product handling problems by picking up or placing products line by line and this can, in one stroke, wipe out many of the problems of handling or collating difficult products.

Robots have been selected for handling toiletry or cosmetics products where pucks have to be used to support the product during filling/labelling/capping and packing. The robot can pick the product out of the pucks and re-circulate the pucks back into the system for reloading. Products like bottles and blister packs can be handled using this technology.

In the champagne trade they demand, in some packs, that the bottles are packed head to tail in trays and then packed into the cases in multi layers. Several of our AN packers are doing this. The bottles are picked up from the vertical position and laid down head to tail direct into the trays. The trays are then driven out and packed using a wrapround machine.

In Germany corrugated and plastics cases are erected, collated and loaded using the AN robot. The same robot head then palletises. While the speed is relatively low this is an extreme example of what robot technology can do. There is no head change needed, as the one head is already equipped with all it needs to do all the disciplines.

When handling plastics or glass bottles the problems are varied. With plastics there is the problem of softness which has already been mentioned. This quite often means that the infeed sometimes needs a scroll. This removes the problems of back pressure damaging the bottles and the bottles deforming. Now the head can pick up the bottles since they are correctly positioned.

Recently developed is the ER.63 which is a 3-axis machine and this can pick up products out of the scroll infeed on the move with a sideways movement. This reduces still further the problems of accumulation and increases line speed at the same time. This same technology applies when looking at some of the latest designs of glass bottles like some of those being used in the whisky industry. Label protection is important when packing whisky and the infeed is a critical area.

Another plus point of the robot packer is its ability to pick up product and then angle it for loading into the outer. With bags of confectionery, for example, the product can be picked up flat and then angled for loading into a display tray.

Glenmorangie has a Cermex ER.30 packing robot for loading bottles of whisky into presentation tubes. This was a very critical project as the fit of the bottle into the tubes is tight so the pick up and placement positions have to be very accurate. This problem was overcome using scroll infeeds for both tubes and bottles.

The styles of outer can be diverse and we are being asked to supply machines to handle plastics trays, corrugated or carton board trays, corrugated or plastics cases, trays and lids.

In some areas wire stillages are being handled for bottles of wine. Pallet boxes are being required in greater quantities for a range of products for supermarkets.

These packs would then be used for displays/selling units within the supermarkets. The products in this type of unit could be cartons or bags or bottles. I have also sold machines for palletising small barrels of wine, which can be sold direct from the pallet in the supermarket.

In the palletising area, robot machines are handling not just product [be they cases or shrink wrap packs], but various sizes and styles of pallet on the same line, layer cards or slip sheets are also required sometimes. On some lines up to four product infeeds can be part of the system.

In some industries double stack pallets are required and robots are ideal for this operation. Flexibility is the key point with palletising robots and just the one head can handle all that is required. Automatic head change is another part of the armoury available. With all this hardware available, it is almost essential that one supplier can handle the whole project and provide a turnkey operation.

Quick size change is a major factor in packing and palletising lines and, as indicated earlier with the palletising machines, this can be automatic with all changes built in for hardware and software.

Changes are therefore carried out in seconds with no or minimal intervention from the operator. On the packing robots this is slightly more complicated due to the various types and sizes of products but, with some help from operators, it is possible to change scrolls and pick up heads with no lifting being required by operators.

Access is again the maximum that both operators and engineers could wish for. Packing and palletising robots are a major step forward for both operators and engineers in most factories and Cermex provides as standard manuals which are part of the installation/commissioning and training programmes that are laid down and followed.

It is absolutely essential that customers’ operators and engineers are up to speed with both operating the machine and maintenance. Likewise fault finding with robots can be a more complicated affair, due in part to the complexity of the line and the speed of operation. As with all higher speed operation the specification of the products to be packed and the pallets to be used is more critical and must be more critical for the machines to work fast and efficiently and usually for a 24/7 operation.

In the past I have seen bottles from two suppliers that are actually different in size. This is more important when using a scroll infeed at high speed. Flow wraps and multi-packs contain variable amounts of air and a major problem revolves around sealing the cases after loading when the product is bigger than the case.

In other words the products must be consistent. I am not saying that they should be exact every time, just that any variation must be agreed and kept to from day one. Likewise, pallets must be produced to a given specification to enable a machine to work automatically.

What does the future hold? I would suggest probably more of the same.

We are already seeing major changes in the styles of outer packing and this must surely continue, demanding greater flexibility and so the pressure to innovate will continue to grow.

But purchasers of robots must be aware that robots of any type are not cheap and although people keep saying that robots are coming down in price it is not just the robot that is important.

The complete system, including guarding, has to be specified and bought.

With lines running on difficult products at high speed, the machines must be well designed by people who know what they are doing. The machines must also be built to a standard that will last the pounding of 24/7 production.

   Robots will continue to evolve and manufacturers will continue to advance, with machinery being able to provide faster speed on difficult products.

  The controls will improve as they must and customer contact must also keep improving.

My company now has 2- and 3-axis robots together with gantry machines and, when linked to machines for palletising, Cermex is able to offer a range of turnkey packaging solutions.

   After sales service is important with modem links coming in, enabling suppliers to provide a quick reaction at low cost by avoiding visits by service engineers.