Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Ergonomics of Automation

As an integrator for FANUC Robotics, North America, ESS has given a good deal of discussion to the advantages of increased productivity achievable when manufacturers automate their manual processes. A number of factors contribute to the increased production, including faster speeds, improved material handling, and reduced downtime associated with changeover. The ergonomics of automation are less widely discussed, but reducing workplace injuries also increases productivity and can save manufacturers thousands of dollars in lost productivity and worker’s compensation.

Ergonomic Injuries by the Numbers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), “Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), often referred to as ergonomic injuries, accounted for 28 percent of all workplace injuries and illnesses requiring time away from work...[i] MSDs include sprains and strains, inflammation, degeneration, tears, pinched nerves or blood vessels, bone splintering and stress fractures. Repetitive motion injuries, such as carpal tunnel syndrome fall into this category as well.

A research paper published earlier this year, “An Ergonomic Investigation of the Case Packing Line at Company XYZ”[ii] provides a succinct analysis of the types of injuries and their impact on a manual case packing operation. The paper concludes that the most common injuries were associated with the wrist and the back.[iii] Back injuries are most commonly the result of improper lifting techniques; wrist injuries are caused by cumulative trauma disorders (CDTs), such as carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. In this particular study, seven OSHA recordable injuries totaled more than $59,000 in workers compensation claims over a four year period.[iv] While the paper did not include data for manual palletizing processes, it is not hard to imagine a similar injury rate for that physically demanding process. Data from the BLS further underscores the lost of productivity due to workplace injuries, for example:
·         3,277,700 total reportable injuries; 965,000 of those injuries resulted in time missed from work
·         379,340 injury reports involved sprains, strains, and tears; 11% of those injuries (43,100) occurred to workers in the manufacturing industry
·         195,150 back injuries were reported; 10% (20,540) occurred to workers in the manufacturing industry [v]
The study of the case packing line concluded that, “The case-packing process should be further investigated in order to implement changes that will reduce the ergonomic risk factors currently present.”[vi]
Automation Solutions
Robotics automation offers a quick and relatively uncomplicated solution to reducing the ergonomic risks of both manual case packing and palletizing processes. Robotic case packers can quickly collate and load cases of product, and often these systems require less floor space than manual case packing stations. While the case packer still requires human intervention to run the machine and re-load the case magazine, the repetitive motions are handled by the robot, which cannot be injured.
Robotic pallet cells also require a human operator, mainly to operate the pallet jack to move pallets into and out of the pallet cell, but the robot handles the case lifting and stacking motions, again reducing the risk of injury to personnel. Even assembly and material handling processes can present an injury risk to employees. Assembly processes very often include repetitive processes that can lead to carpal tunnel syndrome or tendonitis, as can some material handling processes. For example, hand feeding a high speed blister packaging machine can require anywhere from one to six people to repetitively load blisters with product. Robots today have the dexterity needed for many assembly and material handling processes, allowing human personnel to be reassigned to duties that are less likely to cause injury.
Looking at the bottom line only, by reducing the risk of injury to their personnel, manufacturers can realize decreased downtime due to employee absence as well as decreased worker’s compensation costs. This may lead to increased profitability, which may, among other things, allow manufacturers to avoid relocating their factories to countries with lower wages in order to reduce overhead costs. Factor in the human equation and calculate the number of injuries not suffered by employees, and manufacturers can clearly see the ergonomic advantages of automating manual processes.

[i] Bureau of Labor Statistics (11/9/2010) “Nonfatal Occupational Injuries and Illnesses Requiring Days Away From Work, 2009.” Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov 10/14/2011.
[ii] Schmidt, J. (2011) An Ergonomic Investigation of the Case Packing Line at Company XYZ. Retrieved from http://www2.uwstout.edu/content/lib/thesis/2011/2011.schmidtjos.pdf 10/14/2011.
[iii] Ibid, p. 34.
[iv] Ibid, p. 49.
[v] Bureau of Labor Statistics “Latest Numbers.” Retrieved from http://www.bls.gov/IIF/ 10/14/2011.
[vi] Schmidt, p. 38.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Eyes Have It: Machine Vision and the Art of Pick & Place

A recent article written by FANUC Robotics about delta-style robots points out, “In an ideal world, parts line up and fit perfectly; however, in the real world work pieces often require a wiggle or visual adjustment.”[i] In pick-and-place applications, this is especially challenging. Hard automation requires relatively precise positioning in order for the system correctly pick and place objects. An offset of even a few millimeters can potentially cause a missed pick or a botched place. In high speed packaging machinery, this will cause a system stop. One solution to avoid this down time requires a pair of eyes and deft handling to quickly and correctly pick and place. Enter the vision-capable delta style robot. The combination a FANUC M-1iA delta-style vision-enabled 6-axis robot with a flexible conveyor system creates a highly reliable and fast pick-and-place system that requires very little floor space.
In picking applications, machine vision systems continuously take a snap shot of the product moving on the conveyor, which is often backlit to increase the machine vision’s accuracy. As the article explains, “When a product is identified by the camera, its location is combined with the current position of the conveyor belt. As the product enters a robot work area the robot is able to accurately move to the product and either pick it or work on it while matching the current conveyor speed.”[ii] This allows even oddly shaped objects to be accurately picked and precisely placed at high speeds. Space-hogging expensive bowl feeders can often be replaced with this type of system. ESS has successfully tested these robotic flexible feeding systems for picking and placing droppers, caps, plugs, wands, filter elements, cosmetic pans, ball bearings and more.
Assembly applications are also taking advantage of vision-enabled robotic systems. A six-axis M-1iA robot offers increased flexibility, allowing parts to be fed from the sides of the work zone, increasing the usable work space.[iii] The use of machine vision and flexible conveyors to handle the assembly components further reduces the floor space required for the system, allowing a wide variety of manual assembly processes to be automated. Manufacturers in a range of industries are beginning to embrace machine vision; in fact, ESS has conceptualized and/or manufactured assembly systems for medical devices, diagnostic test kits, filter assembly, cosmetic compact assembly, cap and wand sub-assemblies, and requests for proposals for these types of systems are on the rise. It’s easy to see how machines with vision offer a clear solution in pick-and-place processes.

[i] Bruce, David. “How to Automate More Assembly Applications—The Delta Robot Advantage.” Assembly Magazine 18 May 2011. 18 August 2011. <http://www.assemblymag.com/Articles/Howto/BNP_GUID_9-5-2006_A_10000000000001050346>
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] FANUC Robotics America, Inc. M-1iA Genkotsu (fist) Robot. Rochester Hills, MI: FANUC Robotics America, Inc., 07/2009. Print.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Size Matters

A recent article in PMT Magazine pointed out the innovations in compact packaging machinery that allow packagers to maximize productivity without maxing out their available floor space. Size matters in packaging facilities, and bigger isn’t better when it comes to machine footprints. As the PMT article states, “Most packaging professionals can’t recall a time when getting the most functionality out of a piece of real estate wasn’t a concern.”[i] This concern also applies when upgrading a manual packaging process to a semi-automatic or fully automatic process. A manual work station can require more room than people realize, and in many cases, the automated solution actually uses less space. For example a manually loaded cartoner infeed requires space for the product infeed conveyors as well as the area where one or two workers (or more, depending on cartoning speed) stand to load the product from the infeed conveyor to the cartoner bucket infeed. Assuming the product infeed requires 10-18 inches width for conveying product to the loading station and the workers are an average shoulder width of 16-22 inches, the cartoner infeed would need to be extended, at a minimum, almost three feet per worker (and possibly more). In contrast, robotic cartoner loading systems can perform the same task in only 3’ x 3’ of space. And if small size wasn’t enough, a robotic system can handle filling the cartoner infeed 24/7/365 without risking repetitive motion injuries.

Technology advances also allow machine sizes to dwindle. Walt Langosch, Director of Sales and Marketing for ESS Technologies explained to PMT Magazine, “When you had mechanically driven systems with motors and cams, [the machine] needed large heavy frames...Newer servo- and pneumatically driven machines, on the other hand, require smaller support structures.”[ii] Langosch goes on to point out that smaller machines mean less heat to be ventilated, and in some cases, less electricity is needed to run the machine. But going too small can present real drawbacks for the packaging process. It is important to partner with an OEM who has experience in specifying the right size of machine.

Today’s machine building technology makes possible solutions that were unthinkable five or ten years ago. Automated packaging systems such as monoblock fillers/cappers, horizontal cartoners, robotic case packers, and robotic mini pallet cells offer solutions to automate manual packaging processes without maxing out the available factory floor space. Retrofitting manual systems to use robotic or other types of automation offers another solution. Compact robotic systems are ideal not just for cartoner infeed loading, but pick-and-place kit packing, product sorting, puck loading or unloading, blister or thermoformer loading, and more, all in a very small footprint that integrates easily with existing equipment. As Langosch observed, “If packaging system owners thought they couldn’t automate their manual lines because of space issues, they should take a fresh look at it.”[iii] Today, there are more ways than ever to increase productivity while keeping the equipment small.

[i] Parsons, Jim. “The Race for Inner Space.” PMT Magazine. May/June 2011. pp. 48-54.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.

Friday, May 6, 2011

End of Line Packaging Trends

It seems these days, no matter what part of the packaging process one is talking about, automation is the word. This is also true for end-of-line (EOL) packaging. Increasingly, manufacturers and contract packagers look for flexibility in the equipment they specify for their packaging lines. The impetus for this is two-fold. First, manufactures are looking to do more with less — more productivity and more uptime, with fewer personnel, less floor space and less capital equipment. Robotic case packers and palletizers offer a higher rate of speed than most traditional EOL systems, and fewer personnel are required to operate the equipment. A carefully designed robotic system will also greatly reduce the amount of floor space required for the system, especially in multi-SKU lines where conveyors require a substantial portion of the needed floor space.

Second, retailers who are in the process of streamlining their own operations have started to require manufactures to deliver mixed pallets — pallet loads that consist of multiple products in various case sizes. Robotic case packers and palletizers handle changes in package size and weight more efficiently, and robotic EOAT can be designed to handle multiple product types. Even EOAT dedicated to a single product can increase flexibility as changeovers require no tools and can be accomplished in under two minutes. Automatic EOAT changeover systems, such as the one available from ESS Technologies, make fast changeover even easier, and completely hands-free. Responding to pre-programmed instructions, the robot detaches one EOAT to a special docking station that holds all the EOAT for the system. Once docked, the robot automatically releases the current EOAT and positions itself over the desired EOAT. The robot then connects itself to the selected EOAT and returns to the ready position. Today’s robotic controllers allow multiple “recipes” to be stored, making the switch from one product to another a simple “one-button” process.

Robotic case packers and palletizers offer a more flexible and reliable solution for packaging products from single or multiple packaging lines. The low maintenance costs and ease of operation give robotic systems a very fast return on investment (ROI), and their flexibility and high reliability make them useful for many years as they tackle the packaging challenges that non-robotic systems cannot address.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Feed the Machine

Infeed speeds can affect productivity for both primary and secondary packaging machinery. Infeeds that fail to keep pace with the equipment’s production capabilities create costly unscheduled downtime while the machine waits for product, and speed is not the only concern. Improper infeeding will cause a high speed packaging machine to jam, which stops the system and potentially causes damage to the product or the machine. Feeding the machine with correctly-placed components at the proper input speed can be a challenge for packagers who use a manual process to supply the infeed.

To give an example of the expense that manual loading incurs, during a routine process evaluation, ESS Technologies, Inc., a designer, manufacturer and integrator of high speed packaging lines, reviewed a process for a prospective customer that required three personnel, on three shifts to orient and manually load product into a blister packaging machine at a rate of 10-14 cycles per minute. The total cost of personnel salary, machine downtime due to misfed product, and employee absenteeism caused by repetitive-motion injuries placed the estimated annual cost of operation at around $225, 000 per machine.

ESS Technologies, Inc., determined that one robotic loading system, complete with a FANUC robot, custom end-of-arm tooling, a product bowl feeder, a secondary orientation device and programming, would offer an ROI of under one year, allowing valuable human resources to be redeployed in other parts of the manufacturing process. In addition, robotic loading of the blister packaging machine allowed the machine to reach a production speed of 14-18 cycles per minute compared to 10-14 cycles per minute achieved by the manual loading process. The robotic machine infeed meets high speed input requirements and provides greater flexibility for product handling, providing a solution to keep packaging lines running at optimum efficiency while reducing labor costs, scrap and re-work.

A recent assessment by the International Federation of Robots that takes into account the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami effect on northeast Japan concludes with a positive outlook continuing for the robotics market, in spite of the chaos. Robotics offers a complete solution for the automation of primary and secondary packaging lines. As flexibility increases and the cost to install robotic systems decreases, more and more manufacturers can improve production speeds and reduce scrap and rework by incorporating robotic cells to handle machine loading and unloading. The dexterity and speed of today’s multi-axis robots has never been greater, making robotic loading a cost-effective means of keeping up with today’s high speed packaging equipment.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Servo vs. Mechanical: Which machine is best for you?

A recent LinkedIn discussion amongst members of the Packaging Machinery group debated the virtues and drawbacks of mechanical versus servo-driven automated packaging machinery. Several comments focused on increased flexibility offered by servo machines, which includes allowing changes to be made “on the fly,” and increased production speed compared to mechanical systems. Others noted that the skill level required to service servo-driven machines is very different from the skill set needed for mechanical machines, remarking that industrial mechanics generally understand (or can figure out) the workings of mechanical machines, but not all understand servo motors and the programming involved with using them. But cost is the big difference between servo and mechanical machinery, so it is important to understand when to use servos and when a more cost-effective mechanical solution will work.

For manufacturers and packagers of pharmaceuticals, diagnostics, medical devices, cosmetics, and consumer goods, an audit of the packaging process offers the best way to determine which solution should be implemented, especially in scenarios where a manual process is being replaced by an automated process. It not only allows the company to fully understand the current process, it is helpful when writing the equipment specification and calculating ROI. A complete system audit allows companies to understand their current strengths and weaknesses, and put the money where it will have the greatest impact. In general, servo systems work best in applications with multiple product sizes at fairly high production speeds. Mechanical solutions are often more cost effective in production lines with one or two high volume products that can easily justify the cost of custom tooling. A forward thinking system integrator can design a mechanical system that can be upgraded to use servos in the future. The audit allows the integrator and the manufacturer to have a conversation about which type of machine is best for the application and define the best performing, most cost-effective solution.

Which type of machine works best for your application? We would love to hear about it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Welcome To ESS Technologies, Inc. Packaging Machinery Blog

To blog or not to blog, that was the question. After researching the trends and studying the methods, ESS Technologies, Inc. is pleased to present the Packaging Machinery Blog. Our goals for this space are:
  • Provide information about ESS Technologies, Inc.
  • Provide a resource for learning to specify the right packaging machinery for your application
  • Provide insight into the technologies and innovations that create state-of-the-art packaging lines
In the near future we will be posting articles on precision filling and capping solutions, flexible feeding systems, new product announcements, cases studies, application notes, and more. We look forward to your feedback and we welcome suggestions for articles that you would like to see on this blog.