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It is no secret that machine builders today are under significant pressure to deliver equipment that can meet the demands of flexible manufacturing. In today’s made-to-order world, consumers are challenging the status quo by demanding a multitude of variety in the flavors, packaging sizes, and multi-pack offerings of their favorite packaged goods.
Consumer packaged goods (CPG) manufacturers are challenged to deliver future-proof designs that optimize changeover today – and ramp up rapidly for new SKUs not yet imagined.
Until recently, machine builders had little choice regarding how they delivered equipment to the factory floor. Typically, any CPG manufacturing or packaging application comprised of a series of standalone machines that were integrated to complete the line. That legacy remains on many plant floors today.
These lines are characterized by static mechanical parts, friction-based conveyance, and a plethora of disparate, ancillary equipment. Therefore, while they may achieve impressive throughput running uniform product based on fixed variables, machine flexibility is often compromised. Complex mechanical adjustments and equipment synchronization takes time and time is at a premium on any plant floor – especially when a product launch is at stake.
Thankfully, there is a better way. With advances in technology, OEMs now have a better way to meet the demands of manufacturers for more flexibility. Specifically, three key mechatronics technologies are changing the equation for OEMs and the customers they serve.
Firstly, robotics is finding its way into more CPG applications than ever before. Robots are intrinsically flexible, thanks to their ability to operate fully in three dimensions, determine appropriate paths without mechanical rerouting – and address infinitely variable product shapes and sizes.
Secondly, linear motor technology – and notably, independent cart technology (ICT) – boost machine response to a diverse product mix. Unlike conventional conveyance that advances product on a preconfigured path at fixed speed, ICT intelligently moves products as operations are completed.
And finally, automated changeover – which minimizes the need for manual intervention and facilitates machine setup for a new product or packaging configuration from the operator interface. New servo drive functionality is making this option even more cost-effective.
Advances in motion control technologies can help manufacturers meet consumer demand for more product variety and packaging sizes. Rockwell Automation recently introduced a new Kinetix 5100 servo drive, Kinetix TLP motor and cable that can function as a system without a controller – a more cost-effective option for OEMs building smaller machines.
The new Allen-Bradley Kinetix 5100 servo drive can be used with a Micro800 controller, a Logix controller or even by itself, allowing OEMs to choose how the product best functions in their applications.
This drive system can also help OEMs make customers more productive. With the explosion of SKUs, manufacturers are faced with multiple changeovers, which are often a manual process. Using the Kinetix 5100 servo drive, OEMs can create a motorized, or automated, system that can help speed up changeovers.
Featuring built-in Safe Torque Off, users can remove motor torque without removing power from an entire machine, allowing a machine to restart faster after it has reached a safe state. Dual-port EtherNet/IP also supports Device Level Ring topologies.
In addition to enabling more machine flexibility, advanced technologies also allow OEMs to do more with less equipment and less space. In fact, more machine builders are delivering compact solutions that combine once distinct operations, like filling and cartoning, into a unified offering.
Integrated robotics is more than just the latest buzzword – it is defined as the single line or cell controller controlling the robot, which can reduce the need for the dedicated robot controller and associated hardware components such as servo motors, drives, teach pendant and I/O. In this way, a single controller can be used to control multiple robots and it can be simplifying integration and increasing operational efficiency.
A recent study by Mordor Intelligence has shown that the industrial robots market has witnessed a huge demand over the past decade, owing to the rising adoption of smart factory systems, of which robots play a vital part. It estimates that the global smart factory market is expected to reach USD 388.68 billion by 2024, which provides insights on the scope of the adoption of industrial robots for automation across end-user industries.
To meet the needs of flexible “high mix, low volume” production environments, more OEMs are moving away from fixed mechanical systems and developing innovative ways to incorporate robotic technology and advanced motion technology. For OEMs, the critical question is not only which technologies are most appropriate for the application, but also how to best integrate those technologies into the machine and plant architecture.
Not so long ago, machine builders had little choice. Advanced technologies sourced from third-party suppliers typically came equipped with proprietary control systems. As a result, machine coordination relied on the challenging integration of multiple disparate systems. For the OEM, this scenario adds complexity at every stage of a machine’s lifecycle.
Design efficiency is difficult to achieve and customer support is more challenging when staff must master multiple systems. Performance gains may be elusive when communication lags and synchronization stands in the way. Thankfully, advances in programmable safety controllers (PACs) have removed the hurdles. Enhanced processor speeds together with performance now available in the latest PACs means that machine builders can take a unified approach to machine control. Advanced technologies like robotics, ICT and automated changeover systems can now run on the standard PACs that run the rest of the machine.
One system solution
Unified machine control allows OEMs to more easily integrate, control and coordinate advanced technologies. It also simplifies machine operation and maintenance for the end user, who must only understand and support one system.
A machine built on a unified control platform also provides one unified source of information generated by that machine – and places OEMs in a much better position to deliver that information in a meaningful way. Unified machine control provides an excellent foundation for visualization, reporting and analytics solutions to help monitor the key factors affecting performance, efficiency and quality. It enables OEMs to create smarter equipment that more easily integrates into a facility – and provides access to information that allows end users to better respond to changing market demands.
Packaging OEM takes advantage of a unified control platform
Located just outside Toronto, in Brampton, Ontario, AFA Systems is a leading provider of engineered packaging automation systems worldwide. The company’s portfolio extends from robotics, cartoners and case erectors to case packers and palletizers.
Recently, AFA Systems was approached by a customer in China seeking a high-speed packaging solution for a new nutraceutical product. The company planned to sell the liquid elixir in small 100 milliliter bottles, packaged 50 to a carton. In addition, the customer required a wraparound carton with a perforation that could serve as a tray for the consumer, once the flap was opened. Packaging specifications also included the insertion of five packs of 10 drinking straws in each carton.
“This carton design enables the customer to meet two marketing initiatives,” explained Eric Langen, sales and marketing manager, AFA Systems. “The carton can serve as a retail-ready package for the sale of individual products or a convenient storage device for consumers purchasing a full carton of product.”
To meet customer requirements, AFA Systems designed a new machine assembly, a heavy-duty, intermittent motion autoload cartoner for bottling or vial lines. Built on a monobloc frame, the machine completes all operations within 30 square feet – about half the space typically required for a conventional multi-machine solution. The machine runs 1200 bottles per minute.
The complex system includes six AFA Systems robots. After filling, capping and labeling, the bottles are laid on their sides and enter the machine through two infeeds. The bottles are transported to two gantry robots via a pocket conveyor. The gantry robots pick ten bottles each – 20 bottles total each cycle – from the pocket conveyor. The robots place the bottles into a plastic tray, which holds 50 bottles. Once the tray is filled, a third gantry robot pushes the tray into a carton, which has been erected by another gantry robot. The carton advances to the straw packing stations.
Simultaneously, a singulator conveyor stages drinking straw packets single file for two delta robots. The robots pick the straw packets and place them on a staging plate, where they are rotated on edge and end-loaded into the carton between the rows of bottles. The carton is sealed and discharged from the machine.
“This is an extremely complicated application,” said Langen. “However, we were able to simplify training, operation and maintenance for our customer by using just one control platform for all machine operations. A separate robotic platform is not required.”
The machine is based on a Rockwell Automation control platform featuring two Allen-Bradley ControlLogix processors and 22 Allen-Bradley Kinetix servo drives. Allen-Bradley PowerFlex 525 drives run the conveyors. The system is integrated on an EtherNet/IP network and monitored on an Allen-Bradley PanelView graphic interface.
This unified control platform provided the capability for this OEM to deliver a solution that: Reduces footprint by 50 percent with common frame for multiple applications; achieves high-speed operation of 1200 bottles per minute and; eases maintenance with a common control platform for all applications, including robotics.
The robotics revolution
Once upon a time, robots were something from a scene of a science fiction movie – a futuristic figment of our imagination. Fast forward to today, robots are an essential part of our day to day life. As product SKUs continue to increase, manufacturing equipment must simply be more agile to accommodate more product variations – faster than ever before.
Machine builders certainly recognize the advantages of robotics and the manufacturing demand for it. The future looks to be promising. With the help of integrated robotics, it does not look as daunting to meet consumer demand for variety in the flavors, packaging sizes and multi-pack offerings of their favorite packaged goods as it once was.
Furthermore, thanks to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), robots can now provide real-time information to help make business decisions. With cloud connectivity, robots can be monitored, managed, and maintained remotely. This has made it possible for suppliers to support a Robotics as-a-Service (RaaS) model.
In fact, Global Data recently released a Thematic Scorecard for the industrial automation sector, naming IBM, Rockwell Automation, and Google among the leading industrial automation companies in the Robotics-as-a-Service (RaaS) theme. As robotic technologies continue to advance, RaaS helps companies improve productivity by monitoring the health of key components and reducing unplanned downtime.
End users are moving to a Connected Enterprise, bringing together Information Technology (IT) and Operations Technology (OT) systems into one network architecture. Smart machines and equipment provide real time access to data, greater connectivity, and robust security.
Whether you are a machine builder or end user, integrated robotics delivers unprecedented flexibility and agility – a key ingredient to position you and your customers for greater success.