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Automation will have a significant presence at the November gathering of packaging professionals in Chicago’s McCormick Place.

The IRB360 Flexpicker from ABB Robotics combines 20 percent faster speed and 50 percent higher payload capacity in a smaller foo
The IRB360 Flexpicker from ABB Robotics combines 20 percent faster speed and 50 percent higher payload capacity in a smaller foo
When the packaging industry descends upon Chicago’s McCormick Place Expo Hall for Pack Expo International 2008 Nov. 9-13, automation will have a significant place. The OMAC Packaging Work Group, part of the newly re-named Organization for Machine Automation and Control (OMAC), will again have a presence, demonstrating the benefits of interoperability for packaging machine control.

Another automation segment actively participating in the Expo is robotics—a flexible automation technology that is becoming increasingly integrated into packaging applications. A number of innovations will be on display, including stand-alone robots and purpose-built work cells for packaging tasks such as palletizing, as well as robotic packaging machines. The show is sponsored and produced by the Packaging Machinery Manufacturing Institute (PMMI).

“A robot can erect a corrugated container, load product into the container, apply any container closing action, including folding, taping or gluing, place the cases on pallets and position empty pallets for loading,” points out Hans Schouten, vice president of Marketing & Sales at FlexiCell (Ashland, Va; Booth # N-3754), a robotic systems integrator specializing in palletizing and case packing applications.

“Given the choice, brand owners want the flexibility robots provide,” says John Dulchinos, president and chief operating officer at Adept Technology Inc. (Livermore, Calif.; Booth # E-6934), which exhibited at its first Pack Expo International in 1988.

Brand owners want to be able to position product anywhere in the case in any orientation. “You really can’t get that without robotics,” says Chris Calabrese, sales manager, Fallas Automation (Waco, Texas; Booth # S-1226) which has sold several Adabot case packers since its introduction at Pack Expo International in 2006.

Not only are today’s robots faster, but system prices and cost per product placement are declining too, while the cost of manual packaging is rising, says Dulchinos. “During the past five to 10 years, we’ve seen a crossing of the [cost] lines for a variety of applications and niches where it is now more cost-effective to use robots. We’re seeing a lot of [robotic] palletizing right now.”

The most popular applications for robots involve end-of-the-line tasks such as case packing and palletizing, according to a study by PMMI. Although end-of-line tasks may be more common, interest in robots for primary packaging applications—and the number of robots designed for them—is growing.

The more precise the packaging requirement, the more suited it is to robotics. “With a robot, precision comes for free,” notes Dulchinos. “People can be a constraint when precision or specific orientation is required. For example, a robot can work three to five times faster than a person when placing a square candy in a square pocket in a tray,” he explains.

One primary packaging task robots are taking on is loading blister packaging. Tegrant Alloyd Brands (DeKalb, Ill.; Booth # S-963 and S-966) has collaborated with ESS Technologies Inc. (Blacksburg, Va.; Booth # N-3336) and Dorner Mfg. Corp. (Hartland, Wis.; Booth # N-4149) to integrate a TaskMate robot from Fanuc Robotics America Inc. (Rochester Hills, Mich.; Booth # N-4336) and a Dorner 2200 series conveyor into its eight-station, 20-cycle-per-minute Aergo 8 rotary blister packaging machine. Introduced at Pack Expo Las Vegas 2007, the company already has sold several systems; the first one went to a battery company.

High-speed capability makes delta-style robots especially well-suited for primary packaging applications. Expiration of licensing agreements related to the delta robot concept has opened the door to new players. “There’s competition in the market now,” reports Rick Tallian, sales manager for packaging and material handling at ABB Inc., Robotics Division (Auburn Hills, Mich.; Booth # N-3543)—the U.S. office of ABB Robotics AB, Vasteras, Sweden. ABB was one of the original licensees of the delta robot concept, and holds several patents related to the design of its delta robot arm.

ABB’s first-generation delta robot, the IRB340, introduced nearly a decade ago, has been succeeded by a second generation unit, the IRB360 FlexPicker, which combines 20 percent faster speed and 50 percent higher payload capacity in a smaller footprint. Available in a washdown-rated, stainless steel version, the IRB360 includes integrated vision software and conveyor tracking capability via the system’s PickMaster software and IRC5 robot controller.

Another faster, more powerful delta-style robot, the Adept Quattro s650 robot, a four-arm design patented by Adept, is 20 percent faster than traditional delta robots and capable of handling heavier payloads (5 kilograms versus 2 kilograms for traditional delta units). In addition, it reportedly is the only robot on the market with a built-in controller, which eliminates the floor space needed for a control cabinet, as well as the cabling needed to link cabinet and robot. The Quattro robot also features a fully integrated vision system as well as vision-guided conveyor tracking to handle randomly oriented products faster than pedestal-style robots.

Many primary packaging applications involve food, because robots, especially when vision-equipped, can handle randomly presented, non-uniform products such as raw meat or baked goods exiting an oven.

Two of the newest food-grade robots on the market include the LR Mate 200iC Food Option robot and the M-430iA/2F from Fanuc Robotics. The LR Mate 200iC robot is part of Fanuc Robotic’s mini series. Slim and lightweight, it can be mounted in small, narrow workspaces in a variety of orientations including angle and invert. The IP67-rated unit handles payloads weighing up to 5 kilograms.

In fact, makers of sterile parenteral products are beginning to adopt cleanroom-compatible robots for vial and syringe filling applications to eliminate human operators, the biggest source of contamination in these controlled environments. Compared to human operators, a robot in the cleanroom or isolator enclosure can increase vial/syringe filling line throughput by more than 100 percent. ATS Automation (Booth # S-2986), an automation solutions provider based in Cambridge, Ontario, Canada, has helped develop a robot that not only is rated ISO Cleanroom Class 4 under the Organization for International Standards system (Class 10 under U.S. Federal Standard 209E), but also withstands the hostile environment created by the vapor hydrogen peroxide sterilization process commonly used on vial and syringe filling machines enclosed in barrier isolators or cleanrooms.

With palletizing a well-established function for robots, several companies have designed systems especially to pick and stack cases or totes. One entry-level system from Kuka Robotics Corp. (Clinton Township, Mich; Booth # E-7758) targets smaller companies transitioning from manual palletizing. The turnkey system consists of a four-axis Kuka KR 40 PA (40-kilogram payload) or Kuka KR 100 PA (100-kilogram payload) robot, end effector, base and infeed conveyor, plus PalletTech software, controller and cables. Designed to be plug-and-play, the work cell requires only 64 square feet of floor space and is simple to operate and maintain.

Another robotic packaging trend is the merging of the robot into the packaging machine in such a tight integration that the system is no longer a robot loading cases, but a robotic case packer.

A number of robotic case packers have come on the market recently, including the Adabot from Fallas Automation and the RoboPacker and Flexipack machines from Applied Automation Robotics (Carlstadt, N.J.; Booth # S-1712).

The core of the R700 Adabot case packer is a delta-style robot patented by Fallas that is capable of handling higher payloads at higher speeds than traditional delta robots. Designed to be close-coupled with a form-fill-seal machine, the modular Adabot unit handles five-pound payloads and can reach speeds up to 80 cycles per minute. For higher-speed lines, up to four Adabot modules can be linked together and run from one controller. This reduces the cost of the second, third and fourth modules by about 80 percent. Parallel configurations can handle the output from two form-fill-seal machines, making it possible to handle two products at a time.

In action, the Adabot picks up product on the fly and places it in the case according to a pre-programmed pack pattern. The unit, which is especially well-suited for handling bags, can place product virtually anywhere in the case in any orientation, enabling unconventional arrangements like U patterns in which two packages are positioned in one direction with the third turned 90 degrees to maximize cube efficiency. Pack patterns can be changed layer to layer to ensure every inch of the case is used.

Similar attributes are available on the RoboPacker from Applied Automation Robotics. The dual-axis servo gantry robot inside the machine carries payloads in excess of 300 pounds at up to 40 cycles or 25 packages per minute. The highly flexible unit top-loads pillow bags, stand-up pouches, flow-wrapped products, blister packs, cartons, glass/plastic bottles or gabletop containers into pre-erected, regular-slotted corrugated cases, half-slotted cases, chipboard trays or plastic trays/totes, and occupies less than 23 square feet of floor space.

To register for Pack Expo International 2008, visit
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