For Minnesota-based equipment supplier Aagard, success relies on close partnerships with their customers – and a relentless pursuit of technologies that deliver innovative, impactful packaging solutions.
“One of our key value propositions is our collaborative approach,” said Jason Norlien, vice president of technical sales, Aagard. “Our applications engineers work directly with our end users to offer ideas – and develop customized solutions that meet their needs and often exceed their expectations.”
Increasingly, the company is faced with customer demands for more flexible end-of-line packaging options.
“E-commerce is certainly becoming a larger segment,” said Norlien. “Factories need the flexibility to produce smaller case SKUs – and potentially even ship directly to consumers. They are also looking for better ways to automate variety case packing.”
Aagard is keenly focused on the inventive use of Rockwell Automation control technology and digital tools to solve these and other emerging industry challenges.
Redefining Flexibility with ICT & Robotics
To achieve the agile, efficient equipment customers demand, Aagard often turns to robotics – and iTRAK® independent cart technology (ICT) from Rockwell Automation. The company’s most recent designs combine both technologies in one application to meet the demands of variety packing.
“Using technologies that were available ten years ago, the most practical approach to variety packing was manual repackaging,” said Norlien. “Typically, packed cases of uniform product were shipped to co-packers, opened and repacked by hand.”
The company’s automated variety pack solutions aim to change that equation – and minimize waste and labor requirements.
Unlike conventional conveyors based on fixed speed and pitch, iTRAK ICT enables the independent control of multiple magnetically propelled movers to transport product. In an iTRAK system, accelerations, decelerations, velocities and positions are programmable – and once the system starts running, it automatically adjusts speeds and distance as needed in the process.
In one Aagard case packing system, iTRAK combines with gantry robots to pack different flavors of the same product in thousands of configurations. In a recent design, iTRAK presents diverse products to a six-axis articulated arm robot that picks and creates personalized multi-packs. The options are virtually limitless.
“Using robotics along with ICT allows operators to change the case configuration on the fly simply by selecting the correct recipe on the operator interface,” said Jonas Capistrant, applications engineering manager, Aagard.
Multiple Technologies. One Design Platform.
Historically, integrating robotics, ICT and other mechatronics technologies into a system’s control platform has been an arduous, time-consuming process. In a conventional application, each of these technologies run on a separate controller.
“The challenge with that approach is you need a workforce who understands the third-party controllers – and knows how to integrate them into the control platform,” said Capistrant.
Using the built-in kinematics robot control available in Rockwell Automation Logix controllers, Aagard can now take a unified approach to system design. The kinematics capabilities allow the controller to execute multi-axis robot control – thereby eliminating the additional controllers, software and special function blocks typically needed when incorporating a robot into a packaging application.
“If you know how to program a system in a Rockwell Automation controller with ‘XYZ’ coordinates, you can program the robots,” Capistrant explained. “This is hugely beneficial to us because we don’t have to manage a controls engineering force that can support multiple control platforms – and neither do our customers.”
Ramping Up Design Productivity with Simulation
To further support design productivity and concurrent engineering, Aagard is turning to Emulate3D™ technology. This simulation/emulation software delivers dynamic models – or “digital twins” – that can be used to solve technical challenges in the virtual world early in the equipment development cycle.
“We are able to get the robots running before we physically have the robots,” Capistrant explained. “That’s a big advantage when you’re rolling out new, complex technology – and also eases collaboration with remote workers who can work on the system wherever they are.”
Better Ways to Support Workers: Rapid LaunchTM & AR
Aagard recognizes that flexible machine performance is also dependent on skilled workers. As a result, and to support its customers, the company continually seeks ways to ease machine operation, changeover and maintenance.
“Over the last few years, Aagard has put an enormous focus on improving the changeover experience,” said Capistrant. “We know experienced operators are difficult to find, so we are making our equipment more forgiving from a changeover standpoint.”
Specifically, the company has developed Rapid Launch capabilities to enable any operator – even with minimal training – to easily set up any product size within a given range. In the future, Rapid Launch will be standard on all new Aagard equipment.
The company is also investigating ways to add Vuforia® augmented reality (AR) experiences to its training portfolio.
“AR is certainly appealing, especially seeing the challenges our customers face in workforce training,” said Norlien. “We see where the technology is going and are beginning to determine ways to use it.”
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