The rise of robotics: Robots and cobots promise to alleviate labor shortages and boost productivity
27 Jul 2022 --- Robotics are increasingly prevalent in the packaging industry, but there are still many areas where robots and cobots could be introduced to improve productivity and environmental sustainability, according to experts. Moreover, automation rollouts are largely being driven by labor shortages and the potential to release human workers from arduous and repetitive low-value tasks.
PackagingInsights explores the rise of robotics in packaging with Justin Garski, Americas OEM segment manager for packaging at Rockwell Automation, Jeremy Hadall, robotics development lead and Royal Academy of Engineering (UK) visiting professor in Horizontal Innovation, and Andreas Schildknecht, product manager for robotics at Syntegon.
They explain why robots and cobots (or collaborative robots) can be a force for good in the industry’s drive for greater output and lower environmental impact while boosting job satisfaction. They also speculate whether fully automatic production sites – so-called dark factories – will ever become a reality in packaging.
Labor shortages and robots
Severe labor shortages have weakened manufacturing in the West. In the US, reports suggest there could be over 2 million unfilled jobs in manufacturing by 2030. Meanwhile, manufacturers in the UK are facing their largest labor shortage in over 30 years. Reasons for these labor shortages range from COVID-19 impacts and low wages to aging populations and technology skill gaps.
“The lack of labor has changed the justification formula almost overnight. What used to require a 12-24 month return on investment now becomes ‘automate or don’t make the product.’ It’s putting tremendous pressure on end users and, in many cases, the answer is the creative use of robotics and automation or software technology,” says Garski.
“Robots were born from the place of doing the dirty, dangerous, and dull. A lot of factory jobs are no longer viewed by current generations as rewarding. This [perception] is also true in the foodservice industry, which is seeing a boom in automation. No one loved the jobs, and now no one will do them. So again, it comes back to having one choice and one choice only: automate. Robots have been taking jobs for ages, just like computers eliminated switchboard operators.”
Although Hadall concedes that new robots might displace humans from jobs in the short term, many studies have suggested that the implementation of robots allows those displaced to be upskilled and gain higher-paying jobs.
“A great example of this is a team of welders in an American factory. When their jobs were ‘replaced’ by robots, the workers were kept on and retrained as robot programmers, which pays more. From being competitive over their welding, the team is now competitive over their robot programs,” he says.
Other studies have also shown that an increase in robotics can lead to an increase in company turnovers, which creates more jobs within companies and the greater economy.
Powering up productivity
Robotics and automation are also hugely beneficial in driving up productivity rates and efficiencies. Unlike human labor, robots and cobots do not require rest, meaning they can, in theory, work around the clock.
“Many manufacturers replace manual work steps with fully automated solutions. Pick-and-place robots support these companies in reaching their production targets with high efficiency and quality levels while minimizing product loss with gentle handling solutions,” explains Schildknecht.
“Further, robots enhance food safety as they minimize contamination risks by avoiding contact between operators and products.”
Syntegon is preparing to unveil a new robotics pick-and-place (RPP) platform at FachPack in Nuremberg, Germany, this September. The RPP platform complements packaging lines by managing product handling or feeding. The solution will be on display as part of a turnkey system in combination with the SVE 2520 DZ vertical bagger and the Kliklok ACE carton erector.
“Automated solutions will gain importance in the future because they help manufacturers to enhance their production flexibility. They can handle a variety of products and packaging formats – even random product streams – gently, are easy to clean and ensure reliable and efficient processes,” adds Schildknecht.
Cobots: Manufacturer’s best friend?
A prevalent area for robots – and particularly cobots – is in copacking, a business model through which externalized and specialized contractors package products for clients.
“By its nature, copacking is a very flexible business area where contracts are short and margins small. However, with the advent of easy-to-program and flexible collaborative robots, their application in copacking is becoming much simpler. With this ease of reconfiguration, cobots can be quickly changed from one application to another with little cost and time penalty,” explains Hadall.
“A few years ago, industry sources predicted that cobots would take up to 25% of the market by the middle of the century. I’m not sure this level will be reached as the initial hype about their suitability has subsided, but there is definitely a growing interest in their use.”
However, Garski notes that packaging OEMs have continued and accelerated their use of robotics across all segments of packaging.
“From loading protein products into a tray to dry goods into boxes, robots continue to grow at 50%+ rates. Cobots are seeing growth further down the line in places like palletizing, where speeds and rate may not be as big of a concern or where people used to do the work and are no longer available,” he says.
“Flexibility and speed are the biggest benefits of moving to robots. As SKU counts continue to grow and add complexity to manufacturing operations, robots offer a way to easily reconfigure machines and lines quicker than any other technology on the market.”
Energy crisis considerations
In a time of growing climate change concerns, robotics can also provide a genuine boost to environmental sustainability, especially because they only need to operate when there is demand, meaning they can shut down and save energy.
“Similarly (and providing that the robot system is properly set up), robots should not create waste through re-work or a lack of consistency in output. This means that there is less waste being generated and energy being used in re-work and reject materials,” continues Hadall.
“So being able to produce only what is needed, when it’s needed, and with only the materials needed, saves material and energy usage and improves environmental sustainability performance.”
However, Hadall also points out that while the need to provide heating and lighting can be reduced with robots because they do not feel the cold, machines might require more energy to complete a task than a human.
Ultimately, record-high energy costs, exacerbated by the Russo-Ukrainian War, are negatively impacting both manual and automated operations.
Dark factories: Dream or reality?
The Dark Factory – a site that operates in the dark with zero human intervention – has been a goal for many organizations for decades, although few have managed to achieve it. However, the technology to achieve dark factories has existed for some time, and Garski believes it is inevitable these sites will become common.
“We are already seeing AGV and AMR technology starting to feed machinery with box blanks and raw goods – this is a big step forward in a dark factory operation. Do we have a long way to go as an industry? Yes. But we must get there, and it’s coming sooner than later,” he stresses.
Meanwhile, Hadall highlights that it becomes easier to achieve the dark factory concept when variation can be eradicated from the system. If there is any variation that the robot cannot understand, human intervention will still be needed.
“Integrating AI into the control system can help [overcome the variation challenge], but even the most sophisticated AI does not yet reach human levels of cognition. Dark factories are possible in many situations, but it may be some time before they become ubiquitous,” he argues.
A lack of understanding
Generally, Hadall believes the biggest challenge to the increased use of robotics across all industries is a lack of understanding of what they can achieve and how they should be implemented. He explained in detail why businesses should consider using robots in their packaging operations in an Expert View.
“Costs are becoming less of a concern with robot prices falling year-on-year. A bigger challenge is ensuring a robust business case is made. A final area of concern is a skills shortage across the industry both to install and operate robots,” he adds.
Likewise, for Garski, the biggest obstacle to a greater uptake of robotics in the packaging industry is knowledge and enablement.
“The skillset evolves and elevates from existing operators and maintenance personnel, so educating those people and making sure the skillset is leveled up is where the challenge is and the focus needs to be,” he argues.
With shortages of qualified labor likely to remain a considerable industry challenge in many regions, the growing sophistication and implementation of robots will be pivotal to manufacturing efficiencies.
“Many food manufacturers have turned to automated solutions and robots to replace manual work processes and cope with the lack of labor. Robots take over monotonous and tiring tasks while operators may concentrate on more complex work instead, helping manufacturers to realign their labor force,” concludes Schildknecht.
By Joshua Poole
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