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Packaging With Collaborative Robots

Published on July 1, 2020

This spring, Pearson Packaging Systems shipped (2) cap sheet placers to a frozen foods manufacturing facility out of Jackson, Ohio, marking the company’s first project incorporating collaborative packaging robots. The project followed the installation of (12) Pearson robotic palletizers at the same facility earlier in the year – fully automating what was previously an entirely manual end-of-line operation.

Shortly after the palletizing system was installed and operational, the manufacturer introduced a new, tear-open case into their mix of RSC (regular slotted carton) and bulk pack boxes to meet the shelf-ready requirements of retailers. Accounting for about 30% of the facility’s total production volume, the new box styles incorporated a cutout top intended to help shelf stockers easily grasp and open the cases for freezer display. Unfortunately, the opening also allowed dust and other particle contaminants to enter the cases during transit and storage, so the manufacturer returned to Pearson for a top sheet dispensing/application solution.

The layout of the existing equipment and conveying was extremely limiting – especially since conveying transition junctures would need to remain accessible. Hence, fitting traditional slip sheet dispensers and pick-and-place robots in the available space along with the necessary guarding to keep workers safe, was not possible.

Pearson’s Space Saving Solution

To fit within the available footprint while remaining compliant with safety guidelines, Pearson turned to collaborative robots. The resulting dual-cell solution can handle the four palletizing lines dedicated to the new case, along with two additional lines when needed. Each cell fits snugly between the existing pallet transport and takeaway conveyors, and houses a floor-mounted cap sheet magazine, an automatic sheet dispenser, and a FANUC CR-35iA collaborative robot. The robot is designed to safely work in close proximity to humans, without the need for traditional guarding.

The mechanical sheet dispenser picks the topmost corrugate or chipboard cap sheet from the floor-mounted magazine and places it on a receiving plate for the robot. When a complete pallet stack arrives at one of the loading stations, the robot picks the cap sheet and places it atop the pallet stack. The pneumatic vacuum tool is designed with rounded corners and edges – an additional precautionary measure for people working nearby.

“These collaborative robots are coated in a soft rubber material and operate at slow speeds to be able to stop without causing injury if they come in contact with a person”,  explained Thomas Halish, Vice President of Robotic Integration. “Our programmers specify application-specific data for payload, inertia rates, etc., and built-in force sensors execute a gentle stop if the robot comes in contact with anything outside of what it is expecting to encounter. A simple reset will trigger the robot to resume operation.” Halish continues, explaining the greatest challenge of the project was dialing in the tolerance of the robot base. “These robots are extremely sensitive to force, but by using an optimized FANUC mounting plate, the adjustments we had to make to get it properly positioned were minimal.”

Pearson’s Commitment to Advanced Technologies

According to Pearson’s CEO Michael Senske, “This project was a perfect example of Pearson’s commitment to applying advanced technologies to provide flexible and scalable solutions to the unique challenges our customers face.” Mr. Senske continues by saying that he anticipates many more instances where new technologies like collaborative robots will solve familiar challenges like space constraints in far better ways than traditional methods could.

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