Pack Expo 2021: Robots Seek to Meet Worker Shortage, Efficiency Challenges

In Las Vegas this week, robotics suppliers showed the latest collaborative robots and automation to accelerate package handling.

Veo Robotics

Veo Robotics' FreeMove sensor enables safe workcells at industrial speed for packaging and other applications.

With demand for packaging machinery and automation continuing to grow, more than 1,500 exhibitors displayed their products at Pack Expo and the Healthcare Packaging Expo in Las Vegas. The co-located events featured educational sessions and various demonstrations as they returned for the first time in 18 months.

North American machinery shipments will reach $12.8 billion in 2026, representing a 5.2% compound annual growth rate (CAGR), forecasts the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI). Much of that machinery will involve robotics and related technologies as the industry attempts to match the dual challenges of customers’ need for speed and efficiency and wider workforce shortages.

The following companies exhibited systems designed to help workers and companies with packaging applications.

AA20 Group

AAA20 Group LLC demonstrated its subscription-based collaborative robots with a robotic palletizer designed to work alongside human staffers by automatically stacking boxes onto the pallet for transportation.

Robotics as a service (RaaS), particularly for end-of-line palletizing, is growing quickly in the packaging industry, according to the Las Vegas-based company. It has a program that includes full financing without any long-term commitments.

“By utilizing RaaS, growing companies can reallocate their workforce toward higher level activities, and as a result, conserve valuable working capital,” said Karen Mallouk, co-founder of AAA20 Group. “Our program eliminates the need for any robotics expertise whatsoever, as our application experts will fully configure the robots and deliver a turnkey solution.”

“The implementation process is efficient, convenient, and offers the benefits of 100% financing,” she added. “By leasing the labor-saving robots, funding may be allocated as an operating cost versus a capital expense.”

ABB GoFa CRB 15000

ABB said its six-axis GoFa CRB 15000, which can handle objects weighing up to 5 kg (11 lb.), answers the packaging industry’s need for collaborative robots that can handle heavier payloads.

With a reach of 950 mm (37.4 in.) and speeds up to 2.2 m/sec. (4.9 mph) and the proper attachments, the cobot can be used for a variety of applications, including picking, pack-and-place operations, kitting, and product handling.

The award-winning GoFa has intelligent torque and position sensors in each of its six joints/axes to reduce the risk of injury to human workers. They can sense any unexpected contact between the robot arm and a human and stop it within milliseconds, said the company.

Comau and Rockwell Automation

Comau and Rockwell Automation Inc. have partnered to demonstrate unified robotic controls, which are in demand to integrate robotics into industrial operations. The expansion of robotic applications is rooted in Rockwell’s broader strategy to help companies save time and improve performance with unified robot control, ultimately providing long-term value for their business.

Comau and Rockwell are selling the unified product to both companies’ customers. Engineers will now be able to program their entire machine in one environment, including Comau robot arms directly controlled through Rockwell Automation’s Logix-based controllers.

FANUC

FANUC displayed several robots at Pack Expo. Attendees were able to see the new FANUC SR-20iA pick and transfer milk crates between two trays, as the FANUC SR-12iA robot with the environmental option packed and unpacked mouthwash.

This environmental option includes white epoxy coating, bellow covers, anti-rust bolts and seals, and an IP65 rating to withstand dust and liquids.

FANUC also demonstrated its M-410iC/110 palletizing/depalletizing robot picking cases from two conveyors and palletizing mixed-layer unit loads. Attendees were able to choose from a preset number of unit loads using an Allen-Bradley human machine interface (HMI).

Once selected, the HMI screen displayed the unit load, and the robot palletized up to three layers. The robot also depalletized the cases before the cycle repeated.

The company also touted its latest motion-interface option, designed to enable palletizing operators to program homogeneous or mixed unit loads using FANUC add-on instructions (AOIs).

Kawasaki

Kawasaki’s RS013N six-axis cobot has a maximum load capacity of 13 kg (28.6 lb.). A recent redesign for all of the company's R series cobots results in less overall weight, enabling faster working speed and improved range of motion – up to 1,460 mm (57.4 in.), meaning better cycle times and improve flexibility.

The cobot also features covered motors and waterproof electrical connections, with different models for floor, wall, or ceiling mounting. Reduced interference zones around the robot base allow users to maximize their floor space and working area, said the company.

Yaskawa added that the RS013N’s internal Ethernet wiring enables easy connection to a vision system or other peripheral devices.

OSARO

OSARO Inc. demonstrated its robotics application to fully automate the multi-SKU polybagging process for e-commerce operations. OSARO said its automated bagging provides a streamlined autonomous piece-picking solution to seamlessly integrate with automatic bagging machines, from picking to packing.

The San Francisco-based company claimed that its system can package individual items at a rate of 350 pieces per hour, with less overhead and superior return on investment (ROI). A five-cell deployment will return as much as 40% cost savings over five years when compared with an equivalent number of manual bagging stations, said OSARO.

Veo Robotics

As a variety of robotic solutions become more essential in the packaging industry, safety of human-robot collaboration is essential, said Patrick Sobalvarro, president and CEO of Veo Robotics, which displayed its FreeMove safety system.

“What it does is it enables industrial environments to be much more productive, which is crucial in a time where the ongoing labor shortage has really become a crisis for many folks who operate factories and distribution centers and warehouses,” Sobalvarro said.

The system monitors work cells in three dimensions, implementing dynamic speed and monitoring as defined by ISO 10218-2:2011 and ISO/TS 15066:2016, enabling safe interaction between humans and robots.

There aren’t enough humans to meet the packaging industry’s needs, and full automation without any people isn’t workable for many applications, said Sobalvarro. The industry has a large need for human-robot collaboration, but such systems need the best safeguards possible, he added.

The Waltham, Mass.-based company's FreeMove system features sensors positioned on the periphery of the work cell to capture rich image data of the entire space. Then the FreeMove Engine uses the 3D data to identify the work cell including the robot, workpiece, workers, and occlusions in order to track and calculate all possible future states.

If a peson is closer to the robot than the desired protective separation distance (PSD), FreeMove signals the robot to stop. When the PSD violation is cleared, FreeMove allows the robot to safely re-start. This is much more efficient and safer than needing a human to shut down and re-start the robot, Sobalvarro said.

Veo Robotics has sold and installed its systems at nine customer sites in the past five months, and it expects to provide 30 customers with multiple systems in the next year.

About the Author

Phil Britt's avatar
Phil Britt

Britt owns S&P Enterprises and is a technology writer who lives in the greater Chicago area. In addition to Robotics 24/7, he has written for financial services and business publications, including magazines, newsletters, conference dailies, and Web sites.

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Veo Robotics

Veo Robotics' FreeMove sensor enables safe workcells at industrial speed for packaging and other applications.


Robot Technologies