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Bulk Palletizing Robotics: Strengthening the Food and Beverage Industry’s Bottom-Line

by Larry Kelley , BSME
Robotic Industries Association

With an improving economy and increased demand for ready-made food and drinks to meet today’s busy lifestyle, robot OEMs are busier than ever designing products to improve palletizing efficiency for food and beverage processors. While budgets remain about the same as last year, equipment purchasers are demanding more functionality and improved ease of use for the same dollars spent. Happily, equipment manufacturers are well-positioned to meet this challenge in 2005.

Improvements mentioned by industry experts include new software tools designed specifically for palletizing tasks, simplified user interfaces, Windows®-based controllers for easier editing of ladder logic programs, and faster robots. Among the food products mentioned by industry experts as driving demand for their products in 2005 are new-to-market low-calorie flavored water drinks, office-cooler water containers, juice boxes, bulk beverage syrup containers, and alcoholic beverages.

Budget Trends

Most industry experts interviewed expected budgets to remain the same in 2005, but with purchasers expecting more value and ease of use in their deliverables from system integrators:

‘‘A typical system integrator’s budget size for food/beverage-bottle goods bulk palletizing would be in the $220,000 area,’‘ said Mike Crane, Director of Market Development for Consumer Industries and Packaging of ABB Inc.'s Channel Partner Group. In a similar vein, FANUC Robotics America, Inc.’s Dave Wagner, Sr. Staff Engineer, ASG Assembly/Large Systems, said his Integrators were working projects with approximately the same budgets:  ‘‘A system integrator’s budget size is always a function of scope, but for a typical 4-in/4-out cell, I would estimate in the range of $200 - $250K, with budget size changing with the amount of material handling and the complexity of the project.’‘

Motoman Inc.’s Carl Traynor, Senior Director of Marketing, also explained how pressure on food processors’ health care budgets is making them take a second look at how they palletize their products:

‘‘Rising costs related to worker’s compensation claims drive manufacturers’ justification for automated systems,’‘ said Traynor.  ‘‘End-of-the-line palletizing tasks often require repetitive motion and heavy lifting that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome and/or back injuries,’‘ Traynor continued.

System Integrator Challenges

Industry experts were asked to describe what they saw as the biggest challenges to their system integrators in getting a bulk-palletizing system adopted by a large-scale food or drink processor:

‘‘The size of the system integrator, years of experience, and the end-user’s comfort-level with robot technology all factor into the buying decision,’‘ said Mike Crane. ‘‘Some food processors continue to use older technology like pneumatic tables.’‘ Convincing food processors of the cost savings and increased revenue an automated system would bring is the challenge of the Systems Integrator. 

Commenting on challenges integrators face, experts at Motoman spoke via group teleconference:

‘‘Customer acceptance is the biggest challenge,’‘ said Carl Traynor. ‘‘Getting the end-user comfortable with a cell’s operator interface can be a challenge to the integrator.’‘ Traynor continued: ‘‘Ease-of-use is the biggest challenge to use of robotic automation. Delivering an intuitive operator interface can be a challenge to an integrator.’‘

Gregg Webb, Controls and Software Technology Leader for Motoman also commented, ‘‘Custom control systems can also be a challenge.’‘ Motoman system integrators have already done this successfully in USDA wash-down applications using the company’s software. Webb went on to say that robots provide the flexibility to meet operator interface needs whether the customer is bulk-palletizing plastic bottles or depalletizing wine bottles.

Translating customer ideas into product reality can also be a challenge. Dave Wagner of FANUC Robotics amplifies on this: ‘‘Expectations by the end-user are one of the biggest challenges. How the system operates, how it is monitored, what software is used, and how the system is delivered to the end-user are all challenges to the system integrator.’‘

Palletizing Products that Strengthen Food Processors’ Bottom Lines

Industry experts on robotic palletizing were asked which of their company’s products they expected to be in demand for food and beverage/bottled goods applications in 2005:

Containers and Glass Bottles

Mike Crane of ABB anticipates four-axis robots to be in strong demand through 2005, including ones that can handle payloads of up to 250 kg. Applications might include moving cases containing glass bottles and other containers, in conjunction with an accumulator table and a large, third-party 40’‘ x 48’‘ gripper.

Robots for the Freezer: A ‘‘Cool’‘ Solution to Palletizing

Motoman anticipates food and beverage palletizing applications to have strong demand in 2005. Palletizing cases of frozen dinners in an industrial refrigerator can be a challenge to equipment designers. Special heated jackets are typically required for machinery to operate properly in these cold conditions. Traynor said there are now four-axis palletizing robots specifically designed to operate in freezer environments with temperatures as low as –22 degrees Fahrenheit, eliminating the need for an expensive heated jacket and problems caused by condensation within a jacket. ‘‘People can only work in freezer environments for very limited amounts of time, so robotic palletizing is ideal for this type of application,’‘ Traynor added.

Specialized controller and software tools have also been designed for palletizing applications. Today, according to Greg Webb of Motoman, many robots use a Windows-based controller that allow customers to use a ladder editor on the teach pendant to make ladder-logic editing much more user-friendly. Now, he says, the Systems Integrator can use software to choose or create virtually any pallet pattern from any box and pallet layer pattern.  These patterns can be assigned to a pallet in any simulated robotic palletizing system.  Ready-to-run robot jobs are created in minutes and downloaded to the real robot,’‘ says Webb. This system allows maximum reuse of palletizing data and shields the user from detailed robot programming.

Outside of palletizing for the food industry, spot welding and material removal continues to drive sales, according to Traynor.

Similarly, Karen Lewis, Nachi Robotic Systems Inc. Marketing Specialist, expects to see continued demand in bulk-palletizing for food processors during the year. This includes ‘‘applications in frozen and pre-packaged food palletizing, along with moving boxes onto pallets,’‘ Lewis said.

Helping to Ship to Your Local Beverage Distributor  
 
Don Faulkner and Laxmi Musunur, of FANUC Robotics' Automated Systems Group, expect good demand in 2005 for overall bulk palletizing, and beverage applications in particular. They explain that there are robots used for individual, multi-pick, and whole-layer applications, covering 160-, 300- and 450-kg masses, and that four-axis robots are used in many applications from 1-in/1-out, to a demanding 4-in/4-out.
 
FANUC Robotics also expects sales to be strong this year for mixed-load and bulk palletizing applications, and they foresee applications that range from  40-kg payloads to ones for six-axis robots handling up to 600kg payloads.

Food Processor Growth Industries 2005

Products seen by the experts as the ‘‘next big thing’‘ driving the market for food and beverage palletizing include:

  • Bottled water
  • Low-calorie flavored waters
  • 10-gallon rackable water-cooler containers
  • Juice bottles/boxes
  • Alcoholic beverage containers
  • Beverage packages - from ‘‘Fridge-Packs’‘ to ‘‘Cube-Packs’‘ to large plastic industrial-use beverage syrup containers
  • Frozen foods
  • Pre-packaged food containers.
  • The market for healthy fruit drinks keeps evolving: ‘‘Snapple-type fruit drinks are already a mature market,’‘ said FANUC Robotics' Musunur. The beverage drinks shown above, especially liquors, are expected for growth in 2005 by the FANUC Robotics’ team.

Conclusion

System integrators catering to food and beverage manufacturers have exciting, new products to help improve their potential customers’ bottom lines. The cost of repetitive back injuries, ease of use of new controllers being offered, pre-defined pallet libraries, faster robots, and robots designed specifically for refrigerated environments are just a few of the advantages customers might consider. To be sure, those manufacturers adopting the new equipment described here will realize a strengthening of the bottom lines in due course.

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