Robotics and Smart Automation Change the Packaging Game

Robotics and smart automation solutions are innovating and improving processes in many industries, and manufacturing is one of them. Packaging in particular is an area in which technologies are emerging to automate traditionally manual processes and add other efficiencies to systems, with robotic and intelligent automation capabilities becoming available to improve how things are done across the production and supply chains.

The packaging industry has only just scratched the surface of employing available emerging technologies, as many applicable innovations are currently being targeted primarily for other industries.

A number of next-generation IoT-related technologies that are emerging to help make packaging processes more efficient. Among them are sensor innovations that are improving how goods are transported, such as cold-chain data-logging products with lower price points and smaller form factors; temperature logging at the individual project packaging level; and smart packaging connected to the Internet for a variety of uses.

Smart packaging solutions also are finding their way into the process chain. Flexible RFIDs are starting to see item-level adoption in high-value products, such as medicine and liquor, for anti-counterfeiting and sending marketing information. Printed touch sensors enable live interaction with consumers on the package, and low power reflective displays are used in electronic shelf labels to provide real-time information about the products.

One new key innovation that can improve mechanical packaging processes comes out of research developed at Harvard University for a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) robotics challenge and then commercialized by a company called Soft Robotics. The technology is an octopus-inspired soft robotic gripper that can handle delicate, oddly shaped, and a varied array of objects that previously only could be moved and packaged using manual labor.

Robotic automation at the control-system level also is improving packaging processes and creating new efficiencies. Control systems are becoming smaller and more agile as well as reaping the benefits of robotic motion control so that systems that were previously separate are being merged for a more streamlined process.

One of the biggest trends in smart motion control for packaging systems is the integration of robotic motion control into PLCs to create a single control solution, which reduces the amount of hardware and software needed, as well as provides other efficiencies.

While some new robotics technologies work at the mechanical level to improve packaging and others at the control level, technologies also are available that combine the two.

One such technology comes from automation provider Rockwell Automation in the form of its iTrak technology. iTrak is technology that is embedded into the design of a machine that allows it to be more flexible when running production cycles. It also precludes the need for manual changing of tooling and machines to run different products on the line.

Rockwell Automation iTRAK system

Rockwell Automation iTRAK system (Source: Rockwellautomation.com)

>>Read more by Elizabeth Montalbano, Design News, October 25, 2016