Brian Tu, CRO at DCL Logistics (at left), with Dave Tu, DCL’s president, along with one of the cobot-based pack out systems the company has deployed.

Robots Enter Packaging – Modern Material Handling

The next packaging solution that comes to your DC may look less like a traditional automatic packaging line and more like an automated work cell in manufacturing.

Robotic packaging isn’t entirely new frontiers – they’re often used to pack merchandise off manufacturing lines. The difference today is that bots are more advanced in e-commerce packages, where instead of dealing with a single SKU the bot needs the intelligence to handle the thousands of SKUs that might come its way.

Furthermore, leveraging smart bots for e-commerce packaging is not futuristic, it is already being implemented. Companies like MSC Industrial, and DCL Logistics are taking advantage of robots to put goods directly into shippable cartons. Warehouse robotics vendors are also coming up with solutions that can do things like get merchandise into automated alarms and check them.

Traditional packaging automation vendors are thriving and in high demand for their solutions, but robotic-based packaging has emerged as another tool that can be applied to packing the increasing volume of e-commerce and small replenishment orders.

Fortunately, industrial robots and similar collaborative robots (or “cobots”) can be combined with bot software to provide the information needed to handle the diverse set of SKUs found in e-commerce, or to fill small orders for stores or B2B customers.

RightHand Robotics’ robotic pick-up and packing solution at the online pharmacy in the Netherlands places e-commerce orders directly into shipping cartons.

Historically, robots have not been very intelligent, but they do well within narrow tasks with known inputs and outputs, says Stephen Dreyer, senior global product manager for robotics at MHS Global. He adds that things are now changing, both in terms of industry needs and the level of intelligence in robotics.

“The opportunity that opened up is that companies have these more diverse processes, where inputs and outputs are changing, and that is driven by industry needs such as more SKU diversity, changing inventories, and smaller batch sizes that are happening today as companies try to be agile,” Dreyer says. “The technologies that provide bots with the ability to handle more diversity are insight, artificial intelligence (AI), better understanding, as well as machine learning and better exception management capabilities.”

Berkshire Gray robotic solutions take a systems-level turnkey approach that includes supporting intelligent material handling elements such as a conveyor to properly position and move goods.

The intelligence of selection and place

The robots used in packaging need to be smart enough to pick and place, and to learn on the fly when new items come in to be packed.

Several vendors have emerged offering software, artificial intelligence, and vision technology for robotic applications such as e-commerce packaging. These vendors don’t make bots – they provide a solution layer for bots, leveraging best-in-class hardware from bot vendors. This approach has already led to real-world deployments of electronic package communications.

For example, Netherlands-based group, a leading online robotic drug company, uses a fleet of RightPick robots to pick out pieces from RightHand Robots To automate key parts of the order fulfillment process.

Robots choose goods from bags coming from cube storage automation Auto shop And put the order items into the outgoing cartons. The one-stop solution selects, scans and places thousands of SKUs daily.

Vision and artificial intelligence are applied to let the robot know how to make a choice, but also how to properly place items at a destination such as a charging case, carrying case, or insert into an automatic recording device, he explains. Vince Martinelli, Head of Marketing for RightHand.

“Every time he picks a robot, he has to put it somewhere,” Martinelli says. “Sometimes it’s a simple thing to put in the middle of a container that’s larger than a safe height, but other times, it’s more complicated. Sometimes it matters what’s in the container before you drop an extra item in it, because you don’t want to damage the stuff that’s in it. There. Or, you can have a pattern where you distribute items to reduce things landing on each other. We have one client where we consider what’s really in the bag. We think about its shape and direction, while we picture its destination.”

RightHand has also demonstrated its ability to insert items into an automated registration tool, in partnership with Accutech, although no end-user company has registered to deploy the solution.

Normally, with robotic packaging being taken out into shipping cases, Martinelli adds, the automatic case fitting machine is upstream from the robotic cell, so the solution must take into account the order volume that matches the volume box being made by this case fitting tool. “It tends to work well in sectors like online pharmaceuticals, where you see many items in a mix that can fit in the same size of carton,” Martinelli notes.

Much of the upfront discussion with companies looking at robotics solutions involves figuring out how much DC order volume coverage the solution can handle, he points out. Eric NevisCEO and co-founder of Plus One Robotsmaking vision software for logistics robots.

Neves says that this “maturity” stage is where the end-user company and the solution provider finds out what parts of the order mix will work for the bot. “It’s all about achieving the full capacity of the robot,” he says.

Nevis says vision and AI are key to dealing with contrast. With Plus One Robotics solutions, vision technology can also be deployed from a package robot, to inspect bags, understand item dimensions, and direct them to the appropriate robotic cell and erect case. You usually have more automation of things like inserting, closing and tagging of documents from the bot.

Robots have been used by MHS for multiple types of packaging solutions, including automated canister packaging. Final effects that can grip multiple items in a single arm motion maximize productivity.

One company using the Plus One packaging solution is MSC Industrial Supply, a major distributor of MRO supplies. In 2019, MSC deployed its Plus One Robotics 3D Vision System and AI-assisted automated packaging system at its Customer Fulfillment Center in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to drive efficiencies around packaging. The implementation encouraged MSC to implement the system across several sites in other major cities.

Packaging systems need proper supervision and exception handling to increase productivity and reduce downtime, adds Nieves. In Plus One, this is done with a remote “Crew Chief” support team. Nevis adds that exceptions are rare in a well-designed system, but addressing them systematically is one of the keys to the project’s success, as well as to building market momentum for robotics.

“The more successful projects are from vendors like Plus One and others, the more the market will look to embrace this, because, A, it works, and B, it doesn’t cost a lot of energy and focus on keeping it running,” says Nevis.

Kishore BoyalakuntlaVice President of Product at Intelligent Robotics Automation Provider Berkshire Grayagrees that artificial intelligence and vision are key factors that allow robots to know how to fill cartons or bags in a fast, accurate, and reliable manner even with a high SKU variety and a lack of “education” in every SKU.

“Our robot intelligently knows the dimensions of the box, correctly orients each element and gently places it,” Boyalakuntla says. “And our systems can position an item in the right way to make the most of the space.”

systematic thinking

Berkshire Gray solutions cover multiple types of enclosures, Boyalakuntla explains, including automated induction, automated induction, as well as an automated mode wall solution, which can be deployed using rechargeable crates into ejection wall slots. BG also offers an automated store replenishment solution that can automate the filling of store orders into containers.

Overall, Berkshire Gray is taking a ready-made approach where “smart automation” elements such as conveyor short paths and linear sorting are paired with core robotics and AI/vision technology, Boyalakuntla explains. “What we need is a whole systems-wide solution,” he says. “This ensures that the solution reaches the required rate.”

Some companies have developed packaging robotic solutions without the need for a layer of AI or an integrator by leveraging the core platform from a Cobot vendor and inventing one that fits a large portion of their order mix.

for example, DCL Logistics She made major strides in packaging productivity by implementing a cobot solution built on top of a platform offered by Universal Robots. DCL Logistics is a multi-channel third-party logistics company that primarily services emerging and high-growth electronics, local digital brands and medical technology devices through fulfillment centers in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Los Angeles and the heart of Silicon Valley.

In the past, it took five people to carry out the traditional pick-up and packing process at DCL: someone in the warehouse to pick up the order using a wireless device; someone to bring him to the line; someone to check it out; someone to equip it; And someone to pack it and ship it. The company wanted to make this process more efficient and began looking for solutions to automate a key part of the overall process, says Brian To, chief revenue officer for DCL Logistics.

DCL looked at various options before finding what he needed in a Universal Robots collaborative robot. The UR10e model, with DCL configured for the solution on its own, was selected starting at a California fulfillment center in late 2019.

Tu says the deployment, which has since been expanded to other locations, has been successful, cutting labor costs by 50% for a given line, with one Kubot arm generating the same production in two hours that would have taken a team of five people a full shift to pick. and firmness.

“The ROI was strong right from the start in terms of managing costs as production ramped up, and in terms of timing, we were well positioned when the pandemic hit in March 2020,” says Tu. “We’ve already seen a fairly large increase in our direct-to-consumer demand, so when the pandemic hit, we already had this system up and running to help us deal with the very acceleration in our direct-to-consumer volume.”

The application includes a conveyor that assembles, aligns, and transports the boxes to the loading position of the cobot’s cell. The cot picks up a product every 6 seconds and delivers it to a scanner, then places the product in the shipping carton. If the item is incorrect, the robot places the item in the reject container and continues to select the next item without pausing production.

Tu says that not all of DCL’s inventory and customer orders are suitable for the system, but much of it can be automated. “The system was designed to handle specific customer order and inventory profiles, rather than all of our operations and orders, but almost immediately with the cobot system, we were able to significantly reduce labor requirements, allowing us to reassign employees elsewhere,” says To. “And strategically speaking, efficiencies allow us to better serve our customers and offer them lower prices.”

Since the first deployment in California, four more picking and packing systems have been deployed: one more in California and three in Kentucky. Tu says Universal’s cobot platform was easy for DCL’s tech people to work with without having to bring a system integrator.

Importantly, Tu adds, the cobots do not take up much space and complement existing DCL and material flow systems. “We wanted a flexible solution that could coexist with our other systems and processes rather than replace them entirely,” he says.

Many types of robotic packaging solutions are possible, says MHS’s Dryer, and typically need to work in close coordination with systems such as conveyors, mobile robots, or other systems such as automated storage and retrieval systems that feed them goods for picking and packing. Ultimately, Dryer adds, this includes some integration work, as well as software capable of the Warehouse Execution System (WES) level to control order issuance and material flow.

As a result, software that a solution provider can bring to the table is critical to creating an automated packaging solution that runs smoothly.

Dreyer concludes, “With software, you can determine what type of items are within range of what the automated solution can handle and appropriately route goods or bags to manage the flow to and from a system of some type of goods to the robot.” “The software is really the glue that holds them together.”

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