Monday, March 27, 2017

Side By Side: A Case for Collaborative Robots

Side By Side: A Case for Collaborative Robots


When robots first entered the manufacturing work force in the mid-twentieth century, they were installed to perform heavy or dangerous (or both) tasks, over and over again alongside other robots. Where it was impractical to put the robots in rooms of their own, expensive and space-consuming safety guarding was required to protect humans from colliding with the machines that could neither sense their presence nor account for the fragility of the human skeleton. As robot technology advanced, the machines became smaller, lighter, nimbler, and more useful in manufacturing processes.

No longer confined to spot welding and painting, robots are now deployed throughout the factory floor. Today, robotic systems can be found in modern manufacturing plants loading bulk materials into feeders, and assembling a wide range of consumer goods and medical devices. Very small robots with high-speed picking capabilities have been developed that can quickly sort or collate parts, assemble kits, and inspect finished goods. Mid-sized multi-axis robotic units are used for packing those goods into cartons, bags, and blisters, and then inspecting the packaged goods. Larger robots with payloads up to hundreds of pounds also handle end-of-line processes such as case packing and palletizing.

Dual Pallet Cell with Collaborative CR-35iA Robot. (Photo copyright ESS Technologies.)

By automating manual processes, especially case packing and palletizing, manufactures can reduce workplace injuries caused by lifting heavy cases or performing repetitive motions. The cost for factory floor space is not insignificant, however, and while the uses for robots in manufacturing evolved, the safety guarding systems, for the most part, did not. Requiring additional factory floor space, PLe-rated safety guarding systems, the standard for robotic cells, include a combination of wire fences, polycarbonate walls, and sensors that, when tripped, cause the robot to stop all activity within the cell. Opening a guard door or tripping a light curtain or area sensor generates a fault in the robotic PLC that must be addressed by the operator before automatic operation can resume.

The development of collaborative robots, such as FANUC America’s CR-35iA robot, marks a new generation of robotic technology. The CR-35iA offers a payload of up to 35kg and a reach of 1,813mm, making it ideal for automating manual palletizing processes. In addition to eliminating heavy lifting for employees, the collaborative robot further increases workplace safety, because the robot itself is designed to operate in close proximity to humans in a shared workspace without the need for safety fences. The green robot cover is padded to reduce impact forces and pinch points by providing a soft barrier between a human operator and a robot arm. The stopped robot arm can be gently pushed away from people or objects by the operator if needed.

The CR-35iA Collaborative Robot features twenty-four (24) precision sensors that cause it to stop all motion when it comes in contact with an object or person. This eliminates the need for safety guarding and greatly reduces the footprint of the robotic cell. Without guarding, the CR-35iA will operate up to two (2) cycles per second. Greater speeds can be achieved (5-6 cycles per minute) with the use of area sensors to detect motion within the robotic cell. Well-designed robot end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) allows the robot to pick more than one case, depending on the case size and weight, further reducing the time needed to form a full pallet load. In applications requiring placement of a deck sheet or tier sheet, the same robot and tooling performs these functions. When integrated with serialization track-and-trace systems, the robot may also be programmed to hold case labels over cameras or barcode scanners to verify the pallet load or provide automatic reject of incorrectly labeled cases.


FANUC America has recently expanded its line of collaborative robots to include compact versions, the CR-4iA with a 4kg payload and the CR-7iA/L with a 7kg payload, that can be integrated to perform a wide range of manufacturing and packing processes.  Like their larger counterpart, the smaller collaborative robots also include sensors to allow the robot to detect a collision and automatically cease operation. As collaborative technology evolves, expect to see robots working side-by-side with humans in all manner of manufacturing processes.
FANUC America Collaborative Robots (Photo copyright FANUC America. ESS Technologies is an authorized FANUC system integrator.)

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Robotic Palletizers for Track and Trace Serialziation

(This is part threein a three-part series on integrating packaging machinery with track and trace serialization systems to meet the 2017 pharmaceutical mandates. Part one is here. Part two is here.)


Track & Trace Pallet Cells

Robotic palletizers also integrate easily with track and trace systems. Prior to palletizing, labeled cases are verified at the case infeed conveyor. The system either presents the label to the barcode reader or a barcode reader positioned on the conveyor can read the label before the case is picked. In either scenario, incorrect cases can be rejected for rework. Robots can also be programmed to position the case label so that it can be seen and scanned at pallet’s final location.
Barcode Scanners on a Robotic Palletizer Case Infeed
Barcode Scanners at a Palletizer Infeed

Robotic palletizers can be integrated directly with track and trace case packers to create a complete end-to-end system. High speed case packers integrated with stand-alone robotic pallet cells can handle up to 20-25 cases per minute using two robots, one to case pack and one to palletize. Track and trace packaging lines requiring lower speeds, between 5-6 cases per minute, can incorporate case packing and palletizing with a single robot to create a very compact track and trace packaging solution.  Labelers and scanners are also integrated with robotic palletizers. Fully loaded pallets are also labeled using RFID tags, bar codes or readable codes to fully verify the contents of the pallet.
Robotic palletizer verifies case serialization labels before palletizing the cases.
Single Cell Robotic Palletizer with Integrated Serialization System

By integrating OEM serialization systems with packaging machinery, pharmaceutical manufacturers can secure their supply line from counterfeiting and meet current and future pedigree requirements. The investment in integrated equipment provides a streamlined process that can be easily reconfigured for future applications.
Dual cell palletizer with track and trace allows robot to continue palletizing while full pallet is removed.
Dual Cell Robotic Palletizer with Integrated Serialization System


Thursday, February 11, 2016

Cartoners and Case Packers for Track and Trace Serialization

(This is part two in a three-part series on integrating packaging machinery with track and trace serialization systems to meet the 2017 pharmaceutical mandates. Part one is here.)


Robotic Track & Trace Inspection Systems

The simplest application for track and trace systems is the pick-and-place inspection of products. Whether the product is an aggregation or an individual carton or bottle, a properly programmed robotic cell with well-designed end-of-arm tool (EOAT) can pick the object, pass it in front of a vision inspection system or a barcode scanner and place it in a bin or on a conveyor, depending on whether the product is rejected or passed downstream for further packaging.
Camera for inspecting serialization codes on bottles.
Robot Will Hold Bottles Over Inspection Camera Prior to Case Packing
Robotic inspection works well in applications that require an aggregation to be verified after individual products have been bundled, and aggregation scanning equipment cannot be integrated into an existing machine. The stand-alone robotic system can pick the bundle and move it under or over a scanning device. The system allows for rescanning the bundle in the event of a read error. The scanning device can also verify the count, the bottle or carton status and create a list of each item in the bundle. The robot places rejected bundles in a reject bin to be reworked or discarded.

Track & Trace Cartoners

Pick and place inspections systems are not the only robotic application for track and trace packaging machinery. Robotic systems can be used in an end-to-end packaging line to help track the first product in all the way to the finished pallet, ensuring the integrity of every product, every, carton, every case, and every pallet throughout the production process. For example, a packaging line for pharmaceutical bottles begins as each filled and closed bottle is marked with a unique serial number, which may be printed on the label, on the bottle or on an RFID. Sensors verify the code as each bottle enters a robotic case packing cell. The code is read as each bottle is collated into the correct pack pattern to account for the contents that will be placed in the case (the aggregation process). The serialization information is stored by the system microprocessor to be accessed by carton labelers and used in downstream packaging processes.
Serialization camera module integrated on a robotic case packer from ESS Technologies.
Bottles Enter a 4-Camera Serialization Module Where Unique Product codes are Recorded

Track & Trace Case Packers

Automatic case packers with integrated serialization systems allow manufacturers to easily form aggregates and record the contents of each case as they are loaded. As products labeled with unique identifying codes enter the infeed and collation zone, cameras on all four sides of the product capture the code and store it in the system microprocessor. The products are then collated and loaded into the erected case. Robotic case packers for track and trace applications incorporate EOAT that uses a unique suction cup with integrated vacuum sensor for each bottle in the pack pattern. This allows the EOAT to verify that it has picked all of the bottles in the pack pattern via the vacuum sensor. Camera inspection systems can also take a picture of the loaded case and compare it to a picture of a correctly loaded pattern to verify that all bottles have made it into the case.
Aggregated Pack Pattern of Bottles with Serialization Labels

Cases with complete patterns are tagged as “good.” Incomplete cases are not tagged, causing them to be automatically rejected at the case packer discharge. Automatic leaflet feeders with track and trace inspection verification may be added to the case packer to automate the full case load. An overhead camera is used to verify the load in the case. Good cases are then labeled with track and trace information about the contents of the case. The label may include a barcode or human-readable code, a writable RFID tag, which is encoded after the case is packed, or a combination of all three. By tracking each serial number in the pack pattern and applying that information to a unique case, the manufacturer can know at all times exactly where each bottle is in the packaging process. This process would be the same if the product being case packed was a carton, bag, blister pack, or bundle.
Robotic case erector and loader from ESS Technologies with integrated track and trace system.
ESS Technologies Model CEL 5 Robotic Case Erector / Loader with Integrated Serialization System


Next Post: Palletizers for Track and Trace Serialization

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Packaging Machinery for Track and Trace Serialization

(This is part one in a three-part series on integrating packaging machinery with track and trace serialization systems to meet the 2017 pharmaceutical mandates.)

Introduction

Pharmaceutical manufacturers have many good reasons to implement track and trace technology within manufacturing and packaging processes. Serialization allows manufacturers to ensure the integrity of their product and compliance with emerging pedigree laws. Designed primarily as a response to the increase of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, pedigree and e-pedigree laws (for electronic documentation) require manufacturers to show the complete life cycle of the drugs they distribute, from the manufacturing process through the end-of-line packaging.
2D and Serialization Codes Used in Track & Trace Packaging Lines
Unit level tracking methods have been in place for years.  Lot/Expiration codes are ubiquitous on a wide variety of products. But recent changes to the law have shifted the focus to implementing track and trace systems with case packers and palletizers. This can present a number of challenges to pharmaceutical manufacturers, so selecting a qualified packaging machinery supplier to work with the track and trace system supplier is vital. Pharmaceutical companies already invest heavily in capital equipment for manufacturing and packaging. By integrating track and trace serialization technology with automated end-of-line packaging machinery, pharmaceutical manufacturers can meet pedigree requirements and maintain their levels of productivity in a single robust solution.

Packaging Machinery for Track & Trace Lines

Serialization systems track the product from the time it is placed in its primary package (bottle, vial, tube, jar, pouch, etc.) to its final placement on a pallet at the end of the packaging line. This requires integrating inspection and tracking equipment from a track and trace system supplier with the packaging machinery at each step in the packaging process. It’s important to select an equipment provider who understands the requirements being faced by pharmaceutical manufacturers. Ideally, the packaging machinery supplier is also an integrator who can work with other OEMs to successfully implement a track and trace packaging line.

Cameras for Scanning Product Codes (Top) and the Stored Code Information (Bottom)
The track and trace systems incorporate several types of equipment. First labeling or other types of coding equipment place a unique ID code on the item being packaged, e.g. bottles, cartons, blister packs, bundles, etc. Next cameras and other sensors that are capable of reading the ID are integrated with the packaging machinery at various stages in the packaging process such as cartoning or case packing. Print and apply labelers are integrated to label the case with information about its contents, and these labels are also inspected for accuracy. Reject systems are integrated to allow improper product to be removed from the production stream.

The packaging equipment to be integrated with the serialization system should also be considered carefully. Automated packaging machinery is better able to handle production speeds needed to factor in the time it takes to record the serialization information without diminishing overall production rates. The process typically begins with the primary packaging equipment. Individual products, be it bottles, cartons, trays, or bundles, are labeled with a unique identifying code during the primary packaging of the product. It is this code that the track and trace system uses to create information about the contents of each carton, case and pallet.

Storing Serialization Data

Track and trace serialization systems incorporate a means for recording and storing the serialization data for each production run. This is usually accomplished through a dedicated PC integrated with the printers, cameras, and sensors. The centralized data point allows the system to distribute serial number information to each packaging level at each tracking point such as when the product is cartoned, when the carton is case packed and when the case is palletized. These systems interface with the packaging machinery controls to allow the exchange of information.
PC Interface for Recording Serialization Information
Next Post: Cartoners and Case Packers for Track and Trace Serialization

Monday, April 21, 2014

A Hand in Automation

Introduction

A recent assessment of advances in robotics published by the Packaging Machinery Manufacturers Institute (PMMI) attributed increased robotic dexterity to the overall rise in robotics for manufacturers:

While the benefits of manpower reduction and increased operating efficiency are enough to justify the use of robots in the manufacturing line, the real growth in robotics is due to the advances in the design of end-of-arm-tooling (EOAT) or the end effector.

(PMMI. “2014 Trends in Robotics Market Assessment.” PMMI, Reston Virginia: 2014, p. 16.)

This increase is also true for those involved in primary and secondary packaging processes, especially for packagers of pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, and medical devices. Indeed, innovations in vacuum cups, pneumatic grippers, etc., coupled with advances in mechanical design tools using 3-D simulations of EOAT allow engineers to create ever more flexible and nimble robotic tooling capable of handling multiple tasks. As an authorized robotics system integrator for FANUC America, ESS engineers have designed hundreds of robotic end effectors for a range of applications from assembling drug delivery devices to machine infeeds, robotic carton and case loading, track & trace inspection, and robotic palletizing. Each application requires a different approach to the design of the robot EOAT.

Types of EOAT

Robotic end effector styles can be categorized as vacuum, gripper, platen, or some combination, which can be referred to as hybrid EOAT. Recent developments in “bean bag” soft robotic grippers offer variations on these basic categories. Magnetic EOAT represent yet another category of end effectors beginning to make headlines in automation. The application will dictate which type of EOAT works best.

Vacuum EOAT

ESS deploys vacuum-style EOAT most often. In this design, one or more vacuum cups with vacuum pumps are fitted to a base plate that attaches to the robot. When air is applied, the pumps create a vacuum seal with the cups, allowing the robot to lift whatever is attached to the vacuum cup. This style is best for lifting objects and cases that have a smooth surface. The wide range of vacuum cups available today handles everything from large cases to individual products.
Just a Few of the Wide Range of Vacuum Cup Shapes and Sizes Available to EOAT Designers

Gripper / Pincher EOAT

Gripper-style EOAT represents the next most designed style that ESS sees. Also called pincher EOAT, pneumatically controlled grippers can clamp around an object (or objects) and lift it. Objects with irregular shapes or non-smooth surfaces can be handled more reliably with this type of EOAT. Gripper EOAT is also ideal for applications where the robot must manipulate the product, such as shaking a bottle. In case packing such products as foil pouches, gripper EOAT can be fingered to grab products from a stacker.
Three-sided Grippers Allow Robot to Shake the Bottle without Dropping (left) Pinchers Firmly Grip Vials (right) 
Fingered Gripper EOAT Can Grab Foil Pouches, etc. From a Stacker

Hybrid EOAT

ESS sometimes integrates vacuums with gripper EOAT to create a more stable hybrid end effector for irregularly shaped packages. The vacuum cups affix to the smooth parts of the irregular product while the grippers prevent slippage.
EOAT with Vacuum Cups and Side Grippers Give Added Support When Case-Packing Bottles with Topserts (Portions of the EOAT have been masked to protect proprietary designs.)

Platen EOAT

Platen end effectors also employ vacuum pumps, but rather than using suction cups, the plate of the EOAT is punched with numerous holes. A foam pad is then placed over the plate. When the vacuum pump is applied the entire plate becomes a vacuum, allowing the robot to pick entire layers of product at once.
Platen EOAT Picking a Layer of Bottles from a Tote

Multi-Zone and Multi-Function EOAT

EOAT design has also advanced in terms of how much one end effector can actually do. Multi-function EOAT allows a single robot end effector to perform multiple tasks. For example, ESS’s CEL 5 Case Erector / Loader incorporates an EOAT that uses a vacuum arm to pick and erect RSC cases and move them across a bottom taper. The same EOAT then picks objects that have been automatically collated at the infeed and places them in the same RSC case that it just erected. The same EOAT also bumps the case out of the robotic cell to an integrated top case closer or manual closing station.
 
One EOAT Erects the RSC Case (left) and Loads it (right)

EOAT for Palletizers

Even palletizing end effectors can be designed for more than one product or purpose. ESS designed a pallet cell end effector that allowed the pharmaceutical manufacturer to palletize large bottles into crates, picking three bottles at one time. ESS engineers programmed the same robot and end effector to nudge the bottles into their correct position to allow room for more bottles within the crate. Palletizer EOAT can be “multi-zoned” devices that arrange the vacuum cups in such a way that multiple case sizes can be handled with a single EOAT, reducing the cost for size parts and eliminating lengthy changeover times.
Multi-zone Palletizing EOAT (left) and EOAT with “Nudge Blade” for Crating Bottles (right) (Portions of the EOAT have been masked to protect proprietary designs.)

Advanced Design Tools

Software that allows 3D modeling of a robot end effector as well as simulation design software allows designers to fully visualize a robot end effector and test its functionality in a virtual environment. This allows engineers to fully test the interoperation of vacuum and grippers in hybrid EOAT as well as verify speed and product handling. By designing the EOAT in a virtual environment first, engineers can reduce the R&D time required to specify correct vacuum cup sizes and configurations, as well as vacuum pump PSI, and other details.
Concept Case Erector / Loader EOAT (left) and Final EOAT (right)

Conclusion

Today’s advanced EOAT design tools and components have allowed EOAT designers to create ever more flexible, nimble and functional robot end effectors. This increased functionality has allowed robotic automation to expand into every part of the manufacturing and packaging processes. The 2014 PMMI report concludes that:

For manufacturers, the future will be more robots – working across the entire manufacturing process -performing repetitive tasks and doing the heavy lifting in collaboration with human workers...Robots of the future will move along the manufacturing line tirelessly improving throughput, eliminating waste and reducing overall operational costs.

(PMMI. “2014 Trends in Robotics Market Assessment.” PMMI, Reston Virginia: 2014, pp. 35-36.)

 ESS has years of experience successfully integrated robotic solutions into manufacturing processes as well as primary and secondary packaging processes. Our EOAT designs handle the most delicate products and safely palletize the most robust shipping cases. Contact us to learn more about ESS robotic manufacturing and packaging solutions.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Keeping Track

In PMMI’s recently released “2014 Trends in Robotics Market Assessment,” the authors noted that:

Leading the way for innovative uses of [robotic] vision sensor technology are pharmaceutical manufacturers, who are applying the technology to help with serialization. During the past decade, the pharmaceutical industry has been working to implement item-level serialization and e-Pedigree data transfer for end-to-end tracking and tracing capabilities - starting from when the product comes off the packaging line to when it reaches a merchant.(1)

The study points out that while only about half of all robotics installations currently include vision technology, that number is expected to increase significantly over the next five years. (2) As a packaging machinery manufacturer for the pharmaceutical industry and a FANUC America robotics integrator, ESS has already seen a marked increase in interest for these types of systems. Beyond the ergonomic advantages of reducing repetitive motion for human workers, robots also provide error-proof inspection and aggregation in track & trace serialization applications.

Robotic case packers and robotic pallet cells easily integrate with track & trace systems from OEM suppliers. Faced with impending track & trace compliance mandates, pharmaceutical manufacturers are turning to integrators like ESS to provide vision-enabled track & trace serialization for packaging lines. These packaging systems integrate scanners, cameras, and PC-based software, supplied by the track & trace OEM, to read the unique aggregate code on each unit they manufacture and send that information to a track & trace software package. In a robotic case packing application, a robot facilitates the process by holding an aggregated pack pattern over a vision inspection system to verify the coded units before loading them in the case. Once the aggregation is verified and the units case packed, the track & trace system may also have the capability to print a label that itemizes the contents of a case.
Robotic Case Packer With Integrated Vision Inspection for Track & Trace Serialization
Track & trace robotic pallet cells work in a similar fashion. The case labels printed by the track & trace system may include a unique code for the case as well as information about the case contents. Or alternately, the unique code may be applied on a separate label. In either case, this unique code can also be vision-inspected while the case is conveyed to the robotic pallet cell, or the robot could be programmed to pick the case and hold it up to a vision inspection system prior to palletizing. The track & trace software can also keep track of the pallet’s contents as cases are loaded, and a pallet labeler can be integrated to print and apply the pallet aggregation information.

The recent passage of the federal Drug Quality and Security Act (DQSA, H.R. 3204) has given pharmaceutical manufacturers a clear direction forward regarding the implementation of track & trace serialization in their manufacturing and packaging processes. Many pharmaceutical manufacturers, anticipating the need to comply with California’s now superseded e-Pedigree laws, have already begun to specify, purchase, and install robotic, automated track & trace packaging solutions. Experienced packaging machinery OEMs and integrators offer an excellent resource to pharmaceutical manufacturers, providing insight and practical solutions for meeting these emerging drug packaging standards. 

(1)  PMMI. (February 2014) “2014 Trends in Robotics Market Assessment,” page 8.
(2) Ibid.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Robots with A (Re)Purpose

We have all heard the phrase reduce, reuse, recycle. Use less. Use it again. Return it to its original form to reshape it. It’s easy to apply the logic to aluminum cans, but what about packaging machinery? Add a fourth R, repurpose, and the adage also holds true, and with significant cost-savings.

Traditional packaging machinery is designed such that a different automated system may be needed for each step in the process. As an example, a vial packaging line would include one system to pick trays from a magazine and place them into loading position, a second system to load vials in the tray, a third system to pick and place leaflets onto trays, a fourth system to place lids on trays and a fifth system to snap the tray lids closed. When the manufacturer replaces vial packaging with another application, all of those pieces of equipment no longer have a purpose — in essence they become waste, and expensive waste at that. They cannot be re-used. It is impossible to reduce the tooling cost as each system would need to be replaced to handle a different application. And recycling the metal in the equipment might provide some money back, but nowhere near the amount initially spent.

Today, an alternative to traditional packaging machinery exists for manufacturers — robots. A single robot with carefully designed end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) and the correct programming can easily pick and place a tray, pick vials and load them, pick a leaflet from a feeder, place it on top of a tray, pick a tray lid and place it on the tray. A simple device for closing the tray lid may still be necessary, but already the equipment has been reduced from five systems to two. (Admittedly, to do this at any sort of speed, the system would require at least two robots – one to handle the tray placement and loading and one to handle the leaflet and tray lid.) But the real advantage comes to light when the manufacturer changes the product he is packaging.

True story: A customer of ESS called the other day and said, “That robot cell you sold us? Well we’re not doing that application any more. We want to repurpose our robot.” Because the company originally selected a TaskMate™ robotic system, which integrates a FANUC robot with ESS-designed EOAT, they can now use the robotic cell for an entirely different application. The robot, robot base, and controller need no changes. New EOAT and programming for the robot costs very little compared to the cost of a new system. Only a few weeks after placing the order, the system will be up and running the new application. And when that application comes to an end, the customer will be able to repurpose the robot again. With the correct preventative maintenance, many years may pass before the system is at risk of becoming nothing more than expensive waste.

Manufacturers have many choices of how to “go green” when it comes to packaging machinery. A bright yellow FANUC robot in a TaskMate cell is one easy way to do so.

TaskMate Robotic Systems