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Packaging Automation: A New Weapon In The War Against COVID
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By: Nathan Dube on July 21st, 2020

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Packaging Automation: A New Weapon In The War Against COVID

Equipment  |  Plant Performance  |  Warehousing

The United States, and the world at large, continue the complicated battle against the invisible enemy that is COVID-19. One thing has become glaringly obvious. This is not a war that will be fought with traditional machinery and weapons.

 

Doctors are rushing to develop a vaccine while political parties attempt to figure out the complicated puzzle of helping the public adapt to a very uncomfortable "new normal.” Meanwhile, businesses and the corporate world are fighting their own battles against this virus.

 

Today many companies are working together to figure out ways to make working conditions for their employees as close to "normal" as possible. Companies are implementing stringent protocols that are focused on the health, safety, and well-being of their employees.

 

When it comes to large warehouses with packaging lines, this can be extremely complicated. Usually, at these facilities, there are hundreds of people working on large packaging lines working shoulder to shoulder.

 

Our team at Industrial Packaging has gone to great lengths to create a unique approach to combating COVID while prioritizing the safety and health of our people and customers. With a strict set of protocols based on cutting edge information from the CDC, the WHO, and other experts, we have made it a point to focus on safety first.

 

But many companies are struggling with their approach to this continuing pandemic. Some are struggling to find ways to prevent their employees from contracting the virus or stopping the spread.

 

There is however a secret a weapon in the war against the virus, and it is one that was developed before COVID began rearing its ugly head. And when it comes to your warehouse and your packaging lines, that weapon is automation.

 

Fully automated packaging lines have recently been implemented more frequently due to several benefits. These reasons have historically revolved around cost savings, key performance indicators, and the streamlining and optimization of production.

 

However, today the biggest motivation for automating your packaging line is something else entirely. Putting a bold and extreme focus on protecting the health and safety of your people.

 

Packaging Automation VS COVID

 

There are many reasons for automating your packaging line, many of which we will discuss later in this post. But today, the main driver for switching from human-based manual labor to a fully automated packaging line rests with the fact that an automated line with few to no humans results in a drastically lower probability of the virus spreading in your warehouse.

 

If you have a manual or semi-automatic packaging line in your warehouse, chances are you employ dozens if not hundreds of employees. This is particularly true if you run 24/7 and have multiple shifts of operators coming and going from your physical location day in and day out.

 

Now, there are plenty of protocols that you can put into place if you choose to keep using manual labor on your packaging line. Rather than upgrading to a fully automated packaging line that will help to protect your people from the coronavirus, you have opportunities to protect your team with safety measures. 

These can include options like placing plexiglass between lineworkers, enforcing social distancing, and providing masks that are mandatory in your facility.

 

That being said, when you have a warehouse full of workers, the risk is always going to be higher than the uncertainty present with fewer humans on your floors.

 

This can be taken a step further when you start discussing robotic applications for packaging line automation. The rise of collaborative robots, or "co-bots,” as they are commonly referred to, can help to reduce the number of human workers in your warehouse significantly. The fewer people present on the line, the less likely COVID or other viruses will spread through your workforce.

 

What Is A Collaborative Robot?

 

A collaborative robot, or CO-BOT, is a robot created to work in tandem with human counterparts.

 

 

Co-bots are single or double-armed robots that are trained to learn the repetitive motions of human laborers. These collaborative robots can repeat a job over and over as needed for hours on end.

 

Many of these robots can learn to improve their movements with repetition over time. Once a collaborative robot has learned the repetition of different actions, they can increase speed and efficiency. They can work more quickly and efficiently than their human counterparts.

 

 

 

Collaborative robots are engineered with a significant emphasis on safety regarding their human partner. Co-bots are built with special sensors that can detect the presence of humans in their physical space.

 

When a person enters a designated circle around the robot, the co-bot will immediately slow down or stop moving altogether. When the person exits the robot’s space, it will continue to work.

 

Implementing automation of any sort can reduce labor force, and co-bots can significantly reducing the number of human operators in your warehouse. The result is a significant reduction in the probability of spreading COVID.

 


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Why Choose Robots Over Humans in the Packaging Industry?

 

When considering why robots are an excellent choice over humans in the packaging industry, consider the benefits:

  • Flexibility- A huge application for robotics packaging lines is flexibility. By utilizing robots, operators can rapidly change outlines for cases and pallets with a push of a button. Doing this manually takes far longer.
  • Accuracy- Co-bots can be outfitted with slender arms that can achieve a wide range of movement. Collaborative robots are made with precision tooling. This tooling results in a synthetic worker that has superior accuracy and speed to that of a human. Co-bots offer you the ability to achieve greater efficiency, quality, and consistency for various applications in supply chain operations. These applications include high-volume production lines that produce simplistic movements consistently. For example, picking up a product and placing it in a box and then repeating the same process continually.
  • Consistency- Collaborative robots can drastically improve your product quality and cycle time. Co-bot's movements become standardized and significantly increase the quality of your packaging. In this respect, your operations will become seamless.

 

Other Benefits of Robotic Packaging Automation

 

Collaborative robots do not take breaks, lunches, sick days, or vacations. Their robotic arms can work at ultra-high speeds for 70,000+ hours before needing maintenance or showing signs of mechanical failure. Consider a human’s need for breaks and being able to live happily outside of their work-life. Collaborative robots and automated machinery do not have these issues, significantly improving their productivity.

 

This results in a drastic increase in productivity and significantly reduced labor and safety expenses. One co-bot can perform the tasks of a human in much less time and with far greater accuracy. Collaborative robots offer superior reliability, consistency, speed, and efficiency.

 

Where Collaborative Robotics Fit into Package Automation

 

      • Picking & Placing- These highly sophisticated machines are "smart" enough to identify, align, and put items being packaged in their appropriate places throughout the packaging line. They are excellent at packaging oddly shaped and placed objects as they move down the conveyor belt.
      • Depanning– Removing hot products such as baked goods or packaging foods from their respective containers is a delicate process that has to be completed with great care. A co-bot's slim arms can rapidly remove products like cakes or pies from pans without inflicting any damage.
      • Denesting– Removing empty containers from stacks of products to prepare them for filling with food goods like cupcakes and other baked goods, is a very repetitive and necessary process. Collaborative robots can do this much faster and more efficiently than human workers.
      • Boxing– Once food hot food products have been depanned and de-nested, they must then be boxed before shipment. A collaborative robot’s arms are skillful enough to accomplish this without causing damage to fragile products such as eggs.
      • Palletizing– Setting up products for shipping requires stacking them onto pallets. You can reduce the probability of injury to laborers by having your collaborative robots perform this task.
      • Warehousing– Shipping loaded pallets with ease offers a real competitive advantage to food warehouses. The food packaging industry can reap significant benefits from the efficient, fast, and safe warehousing that collaborative robots can achieve.

 

Upgrading To Fully Automatic Packaging Machinery

 

Reducing your reliance on human laborers who are susceptible to contracting and spreading the virus helps automate your packaging line. Another step in automating your packaging line would be to upgrade all of your machinery to fully automatic models.

 

Fully automatic packaging machinery requires little, if any, human interaction with the equipment other than the initial programming or initial settings via a control panel. Once those items have been set up, the machinery mostly runs itself.

 

By using collaborative robots in tandem with fully automatic packaging machinery, you can free up a large portion of your manual labor force. They can complete other responsibilities within your company while helping to reduce the spread of COVID drastically.

 

Packaging Machinery That Can Be Upgraded To Fully Automatic

 

If you have not previously considered transitioning to a fully automated packaging line, then you may not be aware of the types of machinery that can be upgraded to fully automated models.

 

Below is a list with some examples of the types of machinery that you can upgrade to fully automatic versions.

 

How Packaging Automation Can Lower Costs

 

A fine-tuned automated packaging line will expedite your production and increase efficiency almost instantaneously upon launch

 

Depending on your current KPI's for production goals, you could produce multiple days’ worth of increased volume with automation.

 

Your manual labor force is only capable of so much on their own, even when operating at peak efficiency. With much shorter production times, you will able to yield more products in far less time.

 

Instead of hiring additional staff or increasing pay for overtime in an attempt to get higher packaging production capabilities, investing in a fully automated packaging line will help you to scale more efficiently.

 

This will allow you to produce more finished goods in a shorter amount of time. Less labor force will result in your ability to reduce manual labor costs, ultimately boosting your profitability.

 

Because of your increased output and higher efficiency, you can attract gain new customers and attract far more significant contracts with high-volume orders. This will allow you to bid on deals that you may not have been able to fill with your manual labor force. Automation gives a far greater ability to turn around a much bigger product order in less time.

 

The increased volume you can expect from automation is not a matter of production at the expense of consistency. Thanks to automated precision, you will get the power to produce better-quality products on a more consistent basis. Your packaging materials and production will have a more consistent finished product.

 

Should You Upgrade To A Fully Automated Packaging Line?

 

To say that this is a loaded question would be a gross understatement. Upgrading to a fully automated packaging line is a considerable investment and involves a significant overhaul and re-design of your packaging line from the ground up.

 

As for whether or not upgrading to a fully automated packaging line is right for you, well, you are going to have to answer a few questions to quantify your return on investment.

 

  • Do you have the budget to upgrade your line? If you are looking to start automation in small pieces, anticipate costs under $100,000. Take into consideration how long you will be able to pay this back and return a profit. You will be looking at a significantly higher price than $100,000 if you want a fully automated production. Consider your current volumes and your potential volumes with automation. Do you have the demand? If yes, it is highly advised to upgrade. If you are not sure about this question, you will want to consider doing research on your purchasing options, specifically buying versus leasing.
  • Are you able to provide other jobs for your labor force if you automate? If you said no, you might not want to upgrade to keep your employees employed.
  • Do you want to use human labor rather than rely on technology? If you said yes, you would not want to automate.
  • Is speed to market for your products vital to you? If yes, then you should consider an upgrade to a fully automated packaging line.
  •  Will you be able to implement back-up power in the case of a long term power outage? If you said no, automation is not the right choice for you at this time.

 

Once you have taken the time to carefully consider each of the questions above and formulate precise answers with your team, you will be ready to start making a final decision on upgrading to a fully automated packaging line.

 

This being a vast and critical decision for your company, you may not want to make this choice on your own, even if you feel you already know how you wish to proceed.

 

It is highly advised that you reach out to a local packaging professional and have them do a complete analysis of your current packaging line, machinery, materials, Key Performance Indicators, safety protocols, energy and utility requirements, and all other essential variables.

 

This analysis will give them the ability to show you in hard numbers if investing in upgrading to a fully automated packaging line is genuinely right for you.

 

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About Nathan Dube

As the Digital Marketing Specialist at Industrial Packaging, I am honored to create content for such a phenomenal company and work with one of the greatest teams in the Packaging Industry. Whether creating a video, writing blog posts or generating other pieces of content and multimedia, I am always excited to help educate and inspire our prospects and clients to reach their highest potential in regards to their packaging processes and needs.