Within a robot's reach

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Palletising is now within a robot’s reach, says Justin Stoltzfus

It wasn't too long ago that stacking objects on a pallet was seen as beyond the reach of most industrial robots.

But things have changed quickly. As modern robots acquire more in terms of computer vision and image processing, as they become more capable of forecasting and perceiving what's around them due to AI and ML, the palletising robot is becoming a more common part of an industrial environment.

Palletising robots will take all of the various items and packages that should go on a wooden pallet or skid, arrange them well, and wrap them for shipping. This can be a useful station in a comprehensive product packing and shipping process.

What's in a palletising robot?

Typically, the palletising robot has a combination of features that will help it to precisely place and stack items on the pallet.

Some of the key parts include: grippers; sensors; arm tooling; and joints.

The complex joints on the machine enable it to move in a specific range of motion (or multiple ranges of motion for multiple task pieces) to stack the items as needed. The grippers are how the robot typically handles each item physically. Sensors will allow the robot to understand its spatial environment, in order to place the objects well and avoid running into humans, other machines or any other obstacle. Some of this can be similar to what is put into modern cars and vehicles, in terms of lidar and associated functions for navigation.

A lot of the most amazing functionality of the robot relies on work done on convolutional neural networks, where the computer learns to “see” what’s around it, and understand whether its surroundings include obstacles, or not.

Features of palletising robots

In choosing a palletising robot, it's important to look at the specifications and see whether they fit the industrial needs of a business.

One consideration is weight loads – how much weight is the machine designed to deal with?

It's also important to understand how the machine does with differently sized items. It's easier to program a robot to palletise identical units of merchandise. If the pallet stacks are going to be irregular in any way, that may require additional complexity in the robot’s design.

Finally, another consideration involves the fragility of products. It’s a different job stacking, say, a set of cereal boxes, than a set of glass jars full of tomato sauce. The process may need to be different, and the business will have to evaluate how gently the machine can do its work.

Thinking about palletising robots?

Businesses also have to weigh the benefits of adoption against the costs. Experts point out that many of these robots will pay for themselves within one year, in terms of labour saved and other cost savings. For some businesses, this happens even sooner.

Here are some things to think about if you're thinking about purchasing a palletising robot for a business:

Labour availability and cost – is human labour to palletise plentiful, and what does it cost? Could your business save by using a robot that doesn't have the same ergonomics issues that businesses have to plan for with human workers? Is turnover and lack of human workers a problem in the community?

Shape and weight of packages – as mentioned above, weight rating is important in understanding whether the palletising robot can work with your goods or merchandise. Then there’s the fragility of items to think about, too, and whether the machine will need a lot of human oversight, or not.

Facility layout - is there room for a palletising robot in your facility, or in other cases, does the robot actually save room in terms of setting up a workspace?

Palletising robots are one important use case in the fourth Industrial Revolution or ‘industry 4.0.’ This is a new phase of industry related to automation and the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning programs to revolutionise processes.

Robotics are learning to do many things that used to be exclusively human labour. That's changing the face of the modern business, in warehouses, in production facilities and elsewhere. Think about how to integrate robots for palletisation into any process where you have to pack and ship materials or merchandise from one place to another. The robots can dramatically cut down on necessary human labour and save quite a lot for long-term operations. 

Justin Stoltzfus is with Wake Industrial

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