Automation Gets No Vacation

Automation Gets No Vacation

As factory jobs go, this one could be particularly mind-numbing. Pick up the boxes. Put them on the pallet. Turn around, get some more. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat – until 98 boxes were on the pallet – and it was time to start all over again.

If you are a manager, foreman, industrial engineer or shop steward, looking at this job for even a short period of time should make you think that there has to be a better way.

When a manufacturer of small precision plastic items reviewed at their operations, that’s just what they realized. They have two work stations currently staffed by workers that have been stacking boxes on pallets at the end of a packaging line.

They realized that their current system was both risky and inefficient.

The repetitive nature of the work provided a risk for musculo-skeletal injuries – especially repetitive motion syndrome – and the attendant costs in workers compensation, employee turnover, and other related problems.

In addition, the unvarying nature of the work could lead to worker fatigue. This is not only a safety hazard, it can also lead to accuracy and quality problems.

Finally, people on the job need breaks: for meals, for personal needs, for vacations and emergencies. So, staffing the job required attention to scheduling issues and the availability of extra workers for rotation.

When this manufacturer first discussed the job with the IBT Engineering Services, IBT’s answer was pretty straightforward: create an automated robotic palletizing operation. This solution would be cost effective, would overcome safety and quality risks, and be able to operate whenever the line was rolling: No coffee breaks. No time and a half. No vacation days. No accidents. No problems.

When the manufacturer’s management staff reviewed the IBT proposal, they were impressed.

The solution performed. It would have more than enough capacity to handle the current rate of throughput (five boxes per minute per line) ands could grow easily to accommodate a considerably greater volume of packages and pallets.

But… Unfortunately, as all engineers and systems designers have found, there is always a but.

In this case there was one small problem. The working area was tight. And even though there was more than enough room for the robotic system to operate, management did not want to use all of the floor space that might be required.

“No problem,” was IBT’s answer. They developed an alternate solution that accomplished a similar result, with a little more complexity and a little less automation, at a similar price. Best of all, however, was that the new answer used less floor space.

Plan B was evaluated, and, after the usual number of small tweaks and modifications, was approved for construction.

The solution – which is now operational – is a pair of gantry pick and place palletizing systems.

The machinery picks up one or two five-pound (2.3 kg) boxes (approximately 18″ x 12″ x 14″ – 46 cm x 31 cm x 36 cm) and places them on a pallet. The pallet holds fourteen boxes per layer and builds seven layers tall. There is one pattern of assembly, but it rotates by 180 degrees level to level.

The system has been built using a variety of off-the-shelf components. It includes programmed logic controls (Allen-Bradley); sensors (Allen-Bradley, Norgren and Banner); pneumatics (Anver and Norgren) for grabbing and lifting the packages; and three servo motors (Allen- Bradley). It employs five linear actuators (Thomson).

The system also has roller conveyors (Hytrol) and safety light curtains (STI). The entire structural construction is an aluminum modular frame (Parker IPS).

The gantry pick and place palletizing system is fascinating to watch in operation. In addition to its movements along X, Y, and Z axes, there is also rotational motion of the plate holding the packages.

The pneumatics make a series of noises as the boxes are picked up, moved into the pallet area, then placed snugly.

Company management has been well-pleased with IBT’s automation solution that they have authorized the purchase of a third gantry system.

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