Cobots adapt to needs in plastics and packaging

The market for robotics in general and collaborative robots in particular is skyrocketing, with one report forecasting cobots to grow at an astounding 57% CAGR between 2017 and 2023.

Cobots vendor Rethink Robotics (Boston) is right in the thick of the high-tech action. The pioneering company introduced Baxter the cobot to the world in 2012 and the nimbler, higher-functioning and more user-friendly Sawyer in 2015.

Rethink Sawyer with ClickSmart
Sawyer the cobot is shown with ClickSmart quick-change smart sensing technology.

“Cobots can be implemented in a variety of industries including packaging, plastics, electronics, metal fabrication, automotive and general manufacturing,” says Mike Fair, Rethink Robotics’ product manager.

“They’re useful in a diverse range of manufacturing functions and play an important role in automating tasks that previously could only be performed by humans. The best workflows for cobots include repetitive tasks that tend to strain human workers, or dangerous tasks that involve interacting with other machinery. By automating these tedious, time-consuming tasks, factory workers are free to perform more valuable tasks.”

Particular to PlasticsToday’s audience, we asked him about cobots’ specific applicability in plastics.

Plastics manufacturers are not strangers to the struggle to fill repetitive, dull jobs, and fortunately, the lightweight nature of plastic parts make them a great fit for cobots, which have a lower payload than traditional industrial robots,” Fair responds. “Cobots can be deployed on a variety of tasks that are integral to plastics manufacturing, including machine tending of injection or blow molding machines, packaging finished parts, packing containers for shipping and kitting plastic components.”

The example of blow molder Cox Container

He shared the example of Cox Container (Troy, AL), a plastics blow molding manufacturer, as exemplifying what’s possible today in these markets.

The company deployed Rethink’s Sawyer robot in its packing function to address challenges associated with labor shortages and offer high quality jobs to its workers. Sawyer picks up bottles from a conveyer belt and places them into a custom bin designed by Cox Container. Once the bin is half full, Sawyer is programmed to go to another picking area, select a corrugate divider, place it in the bin and begin filling the container with a second layer of bottles. Once complete, the operator gives Sawyer a new bin to start packing, and the operator finishes the final packing of the product. With Sawyer, the company has reduced labor needs in one packing work cell Sawyer at Cox Containerby 50% and freed up three full-time employees reassigned to more valuable and meaningful work.

Sometimes companies aren’t looking to free up workers from mundane tasks as much as they are simply needing workers to run an operation, which points to a major trend driving growth in robotics: the widespread impact of labor shortages. Fundstrat Global Advisors reports a global shortage of 8.2 million manufacturing workers through 2027. This compels manufacturers to find alternative means of staffing their factories, and cobots are an obvious choice, according to Fair.

“Labor is and will continue to be a major challenge for manufacturers into the foreseeable future,” he says. “Statistics indicate that 10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age every single day, and 76 million are set to retire in the coming years. Many of those boomers are working in factories, and the next generations aren’t interested in working mundane manufacturing jobs. This trend makes it critical that manufacturers have an alternative labor source. Cobots are a great solution to this challenge, filling jobs on the factory floor that are undesirable, involving monotonous tasks, while freeing workers to perform more valuable jobs.”

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The robots’ flexibility, mobility and capability is rapidly evolving through hardware and, more recently, software upgrades while finding a sweet spot of optimization in integration with other technologies.

For example, on the hardware side, Rethink Robotics recently announced the ClickSmart technology (shown in main image at top), a solution for end-of-arm tooling that incorporates smart sensing and rapid swapping capabilities. Designed to simplify robot deployment, ClickSmart offers a way for users to swap end effectors in seconds, whether they are Rethink’s ClickSmart family of grippers or grippers from a wide variety of end-effector vendors.Rethink Intera

In software, cobots are also moving into the data gathering environment, empowering manufacturers to make better business decisions, Fair points out.

“We recently released the Intera Insights feature with the Intera 5 software platform, providing critical data insights to manufacturers in real time,” he explains. “Intera Insights displays key performance indicators (KPIs) via a customizable dashboard on the robot’s display (shown at right), making it accessible directly on the factory floor. This data drives more informed production decisions, while saving time and money by eliminating the need to invest in or create another data collection system. With Intera 5, manufacturers can also optimize cycle time with additional enhancements to Sawyer’s vision capabilities.”

Rethink quote about manufacturersFair also gives manufacturers credit for the growing portfolio of cobots success stories.

“One thing manufacturers do better now than they did in previous years is in identifying and deploying cobots on the right task,” Fair opines. “Cobots are particularly well-suited for specific tasks, like packaging, and don’t do as well on tasks that require human cognition and dexterity. Manufacturers today have a better understanding of cobot technology, and are deploying cobots in the right tasks to see higher productivity and efficiency as a result.”

We asked Fair for final thoughts to leave with readers.

“Cobots are safe enough to work alongside people, easy to deploy and able to perform dull or dirty tasks that must be completed, but aren’t very satisfying,” Fair says. “Offering a solution to the labor problem fueled by an aging workforce and a new generation that doesn’t want to work in manufacturing, cobots provide an effective and dependable way to automate more tasks and increase productivity without sacrificing quality.”

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