Packaging automation trends

Like many other industries, the packaging sector constantly adapts to market requirements. Factors affecting packaging automation include new regulations, skills shortages and digital transformation. Innovative companies are turning these challenges into opportunities through new technologies. For example, human-robot collaboration and artificial intelligence to manage intensive data processing. Mitsubishi Electric’s Mallte Schlüter looks at some recent packaging automation trends.

Automated high-speed processes used for mass production cannot always handle mass customisation economically. Some products need complex processing tasks, small batches or premium packaging. This means tasks are often transferred to contract packers using expensive human resources. Conventional industrial robots are likely to play a subordinate role in this area.

Collaborative robots

One of the first packaging automation trends is for collaborative robots (cobots) for use next to humans without protective barriers. Rather than displacing classic industrial robots, it’s about supplementing them. This is especially true in the co-packing sector says Schlüter. On the other hand, the support of humans with input from cobots also presents an opportunity. When equipped with vision systems, they relieve people of monotonous, tiring and physical tasks. this way, they increase the efficiency and quality of human work.

From the outset, cobot design is for their use near humans. They operate with forces and acceleration parameters that are harmless to humans according to ISO TS15066 safety guideline. “Mitsubishi Electric is currently developing a new collaborative robot with additional features. They avoid the risk of injury from crushing edges and a surface that is easy to clean and prevents dirt traps. Markedly, they still achieve repeat accuracy of ±0.02 mm as our industrial robots. The prototypes are still under testing, but they have already shown to a wider audience at international shows.” says Schlüter.

A further feature of the cobots in general is their simple control. This means making programming changes using trained personnel at the end-user company. This eliminates the ongoing need for external system integrators or programmers. In addition, they can be used quickly and flexibly in many application areas within the packaging industry. Mitsubishi Electric’s prototype offers various options for “teaching” cobots. These range from force-controlled manual movement of the robot arm to the desired position – to visual programming. User interfaces can be on tablets or mobile devices for calibration and parameterization.

Packaging automation trends

For industrial robots, the market demand is for alternative safety solutions to fences, barriers, cages and cells. After all, these safety precautions occupy valuable production space, mean high additional cleaning costs in hygienic areas, and prevent a meaningful cooperation with workers.

Currently there are complex restart procedures after an emergency stop or the opening of a protective barrier. Instead, optical safety systems are becoming popular. Laser scanners are widely used to monitor defined zones around the robot. “A special feature offered by Mitsubishi Electric is a safety-relevant reduction in the robot’s speed of movement. As soon as a human enters their outer zone they slow down. When a person enters the area where there is a danger of direct contact with the robot, the robot stops immediately.

Instead of securing an area with light barriers and laser scanners, camera systems monitor the entire rooms. Future, vision systems will use artificial intelligence (AI) to recognize when and where people enter the robot’s workspace and regulate its speed. In this way, people will soon be able to move freely and safely around robots. Mitsubishi Electric is working with its partners to develop practical solutions ready to bring this to market.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

Artificial intelligence in robotics, AI describes the ability to react to unforeseen and non-programmed situations. Without AI, a robot cannot identify or react to a product that deviates from the standard orientation, geometry or packaging. Robot equipped with AI and vision systems as sensors can now learn to identify these deviations and adapt their processes. Today, the new MELFA FR robot series from Mitsubishi Electric is available with AI functions. These can increase the yield in industries such as food and life sciences.

AI is also used where intelligent robots detect quality defects in products and replace them. Robots that can be moved manually or mounted on driverless transport systems. They can also quickly detect their new position and adapt their process sequences using AI.

Data Mining

Against the backdrop of a desire to increase OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) by means of digitalization, there is a high demand for analysis of extracted data (data mining) from production. In the first instance there is a recipe and production data for internal evaluation. Furthermore, it allows recording  of the condition and operating profile of devices like the robot’s components such as servo drives. This provides valuable information for instance the status of wear parts and any contamination.

The resulting database information then enables predictive maintenance strategies with a significant saving potential in maintenance costs. To improve these strategies further, Mitsubishi Electric is developing a new edge computing technology called MELIPC that will be available in the course of the coming year. It is aiming at leveraging the value of manufacturer’s data using advanced analytic algorithms executed on the edge of the shop floor.

Another important category of process data is for traceability and consumer information, especially in the food sector. This can prove compliance with the cold chain or to attach origin information to food packaging for viewing or called up via a QR code. “At Mitsubishi Electric, we can collect all data from PLCs, controls and drives centrally and process it locally using special edge computing technologies. This reduces the bill for storage space in the cloud in addition to delivering many other advantages for production control and monitoring.

“Robots are far from replacing all manual work in the packaging industry,” summarizes Malte Schlüter. “As fully integrated, intelligent ‘colleagues’, they will help to make tasks more comfortable and efficient though. This is no longer a dream of the future, because we have the corresponding technology right now – and it is economic to use”.