When industries utilize tools and systems that allow them to quickly change from one task to another, it’s referred to as flexible automation. Engineering robots or automated systems to switch from one type of operation to another via a command change to a controller or altering a line of code in software enables smart manufacturing facilities to quickly adjust when needed. For example, robot arms can be pre-programmed to conduct a variety of tasks along a production line, such as drilling holes inserting rivets or screws, sanding, spray-painting or welding.
This kind of custom automation expands the capabilities of industrial facilities through the use of a simple-to-use yet sophisticated computer programming. It gives factories, warehouses and other facilities that utilize manufacturing automation a means to teach their automated equipment new skills. In essence, it’s a form of artificial intelligence, which with current technology could even respond to verbal commands or react automatically to visual cues. The possibilities of flexible automation for industry are nearly endless.
Flexible Automation: Engineering Factories for the Future
The theory of flexible manufacturing emerged in the 1960s with the introduction of automated technology to the production line, as computerized numerical control (CNC) machines, programmable controllers and robots began to take over factory floors. Today, it allows industrial equipment to be programmed to do a number of specific tasks, and enables changes to these tasks within a short time frame. This offers factories flexibility in their processes, permitting them to switch production between different types of products quickly.
Typically, flexible automation systems consist of the following:
- Part processing machines: CNC machining equipment carries out a portion of these processes, with inspection and other automated work stations used in combination.
- Material-handling system: Conveyancing and other systems move parts from one area along the production line to another, with robots generally used for the loading and unloading of product.
- Central computer control system: Communications that come from this central controller provide component routing information and adjust timing within the material-handling system while also coordinating the operational processes of these machines.
- Human labor: While these systems are based around automation, engineering this flexibility still requires humans to manage, repair, maintain and alter procedures when necessary.
Flexible automation systems have highly automated processes that allow them to produce smaller batch sizes as efficiently as bigger production runs. Such fabrication techniques are ideal for on-demand manufacturers, many of whom deal with smaller orders from e-commerce distributors. Though typically these methods are associated with front line manufacturing, automation flexibility can be applied to other processes, such as packaging.
Examples of Flexible Manufacturing Automation
Flexible manufacturing techniques allow low-volume and high-mix manufacturers to apply custom automation equipment with negligible cost implications. These techniques and the technology that support them permit manufacturers to react rapidly to design modifications, new orders or even market changes, while also making small batches of product more economical to fabricate. This flexibility is not only used in product manufacturing, automation can be used in the packaging process as well.
Robots are being used with increasing frequency in packaging operations. Robots have been adapted to handle products with a variety of sizes and shapes, including more delicate products. This is especially true of collaborative robots that work alongside human operators. Capable of dealing with changing requirements and environments, they’re easy to train for new tasks. Such manufacturing automation has become more commonplace within the packaging industry, including with automated packaging, source tagging and automated labeling.
Manufacturing automation for packaging products is as diverse as the types of products that require packaging. Packaging ranges from wrapping single pieces of candy that’s then bagged for consumers to whole shrink-wrapping pallets of products in preparation for shipping to a distributor. Depending on the product, packaging machine designs must meet the requirements of a manufacturer or distributor, and often these systems are highly customized. Automation for packaging depends upon the type, size, fragility and other elements of the items being packaged, so the design of packaging systems should provide a wide range of capabilities.
Custom automation in packaging equipment should include the following capabilities:
- Easily integrated with other manufacturing automation systems
- Feature up-to-data safety technology
- Programmable operations that are data-centric
- Real-time diagnostics for maintenance and servicing
Automated packaging equipment maximizes efficiency, allowing smaller manufacturers to stay competitive against mass-produced packaged products. Current automation engineering also makes it possible to accommodate more types of products with distinct packaging requirements. It helps manufacturers to reduce the time it takes to package a product, thus reducing operating costs.
There are three general types of packaging automation: primary, secondary and tertiary.
Primary Packaging Automation
Whether it’s a head of lettuce or an automotive component, primary packaging is what a consumer sees when buying a product off the shelf in a retail outlet. Regardless of the product, manufacturers need to consider a number of issues regarding equipment, including floorspace, quality control, throughput and volume. Consideration must also be paid to what’s being packaged, particularly any cleanliness requirements and dimensional issues. How the product is presented also matters, as packaging is also a form of marketing.
The first stage of automated packaging involves equipment like:
- Conveyancing system to infeed or outfeed products.
- Hoppers for gathering products from which they’re conveyed in a steady flow.
- Linear feeders that both orient and sort the product.
- Vibratory bowls that help orient bulk products as they’re fed singly through other machinery.
Packaging systems are designed to classify, orient, allot, position and introduce products quickly, and in a manner that won’t damage the product.
Secondary Packaging Automation
Also known as case packaging automation, it involves packaging single products together in larger cases, or other types of containers, to protect them when in transit. Custom automation equipment provides greater speed, reliability and accuracy to packaging than manual packaging. For equipment at this stage, flexibility is integral to deal with changeovers in products. Manually packaging at this stage often requires much more space for material storage and workstations, while packaging automation often will reduce the space needed.
There are a few different types of custom automation at this stage. The most common method involves top loading cases vertically, which is typical for bags, bottles, cartons, flow packs, pouches and sachets. To create a smaller footprint when packaging, a method referred to as side load case packaging entails mainly packaging retail cartons or other structured products horizontally. Wrap-around case packaging offers the lowest cost, using precut flat sheets that seal the sides of the product; this method is often used for canned beverages or foods.
Tertiary Packaging Automation
This final stage of packaging automation – also described as end-of-line packaging – prepares products for shipment to retail outlets or warehouses. Providing protection during shipping, this method allows products to be moved easily in bulk. Though mechanical palletizers have been around for decades, flexible automation utilizes robotic palletizing systems for greater efficiency. While generally more reliable, their greater flexibility and smaller footprint make them more desirable in manufacturing. Engineering of these systems allows them to perform multiple tasks, sometimes even simultaneously, including packaging products, loading boxes onto pallets and wrapping pallets in shrink wrap.
Source tagging is the application of electronic article surveillance (EAS) tags or labels, applied onto or within a product during packaging or manufacturing. Automation of this process saves time, with hard tags used for source tagging clothing while adhesive labels typically go on inflexible merchandise. Many of these tags or labels use radio-frequency identification (RFID) or similar technology to protect items against theft, or to automatically reorder items when stock gets low. RFID tags can also be used on packaging to track their location within the supply chain.
When introducing electronic ID tags, it’s important to understand:
- Precise purpose for tags or labels
- At which frequency tags or labels will operate
- Conditions under which they’ll be operating
- Scanning equipment to be used to read them
- Length of lifecycle for tags or labels
- Expected lifecycle of the label or tag
Source tagging adds value to a product, as retailers don’t then need to add anti-theft devices themselves, while this procedure is made much quicker due to automation. Engineering RFID tags into packaging also improves the speed of processing orders and accuracy within inventories. Their use in packaging and logistics helps manufacturers automate workflows, data collection and processes, along with helping to identify bottlenecks and improve visibility throughout the supply chain. When large volumes of goods require quick shipping and receiving, an electronic tag that details all contents of a pallet will save manufacturers time. And it does this without one box having to be opened or moved.
Source tagging doesn’t come cheap, however. Costs go well beyond acquiring tags or labels. Tagging merchandise and goods requires investing in automated equipment, changes to processes, new design features and the labor involved in installation of these systems. As these systems become more common in the packaging industry, however, these electronic tags are being reused and recycled.
Manufacturers use labels to identify and market their products. Manual labeling systems are normally either inflexible or only accommodate labels within a certain size range. Conversely, automated labeling systems work for a wide range of label sizes. Having a single machine that can be configured for a diverse assortment of product types and sizes allows greater flexibility during the packaging process.
While automated labeling is commonly used by manufacturers for packaged products and in the packaging industry, automatic labelers have become increasingly more flexible in what they can do. Those that integrate robots within a flexible manufacturing system into their automated labeling systems offer numerous benefits.
These automated labeling machines will often feature capabilities that include:
- AI that enables a robotic arm to act intelligently within its programming while placing labels.
- Implements designed to keep from damaging the product.
- Label dispenser/applicator to dispense and apply labels of varying dimensions.
- Machine vision camera systems to allow them to accurately and precisely place labels, even on randomly placed products.
- Memory storage within the labeler with figures on how to calibrate the machine for labeling different products.
- Motor for roller or other implement to apply labels.
- User interface to permit human operator to adjust, monitor, control and load configurations.
Stored calibration information allows operators to set machines for a single label, then recall these settings when needed again. Labeling machines also need to consider such things as the pressure needed for precise application and speed of operation necessary to keep up with the production line. Considering the advantages for manufacturing, automation for labeling processes allows factories to label products in batches economically enough to compete with mass-produced labeling.
Flexible Automation Solutions by EAM
EAM Inc. has provided custom automation solutions for manufacturers since 1967. Our automation expertise has been applied to production lines for the medical, food processing and other industries. From the integration of robots with machine vision capabilities onto factory floors to automated labeling and source tagging of products, EAM provides manufacturers and packaging companies with automated capabilities that allow them to improve the efficiency, speed and accuracy of their production lines. To learn more about the automation solutions we can provide to increase the profitability of your business or factory, contact us today.