Achieving Sustainability With Flexible Automation

Sustainability is not at odds with good business. It can actually serve to balance prosperity with environmental and social responsibility.

By Rush LaSelle, Adept Technology Inc. December 1, 2009

Our need to preserve resources for the future means packaging’s ultimate goal is achieving sustainability. Packaging sustainability balances economic prosperity with environmental and social responsibility. To achieve this, packagers must find ways to preserve resources by minimizing environmental impacts and energy consumption and adopting environmentally friendly packaging. Packagers also must address issues regarding the protection of products and employees by improving processes to minimize contamination, tampering, and injuries. Coupled with these challenges, packagers must also ensure their company’s continued prosperity by maximizing production efficiency.

As packagers research and review their options to achieve the goal of packaging sustainability, they should look to flexible automation as a powerful and effective solution. Flexible automation is a vital component in helping packagers achieve a sustainable balance by addressing three strategic goals: Preserve, protect, and prosper. Automation allows packagers to increase production, consistency, and reliability while improving working conditions and allowing manufacturers to quickly change to more eco-friendly packaging materials and options.

Let’s take a more in-depth look at each of these goals to understand what’s driving this movement and how flexible automation addresses these issues.

Packaging accounts for almost a third of the trash in the U.S. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), paper, paperboard and plastics, most of which involve packaging in some form, constitute 46% of all worldwide municipal solid waste.

While packaging is necessary to protect products from contamination, spoilage, damage, and tampering, its environmental impact cannot be overlooked.

Packagers in 2009 and beyond must review how to package their products and how the packaging affects the environment. The most obvious way to do this is for packagers to produce less, which means reducing the quantity of materials and other resources used in packaging. Packagers should invest in packaging that weighs less, is smaller, uses recycled material, and incorporates renewable resources whenever possible. By doing so, they will reduce waste, save on energy costs, lower shipping weights, cut production costs, and offset price increases.

The good news is that packagers are already doing this, by designing new formats such as concentrated forms of detergents requiring smaller packages, eliminating secondary packaging and replacing rigid packaging with flexible packaging. A key industry driver behind this is Walmart’s supplier scorecard, which requires strict adherence to sustainable packaging.

According to the EPA, Walmart anticipates that, with its scorecard program in place, it will reduce packaging of a single toy line enough to save 3,800 trees, 1,000 barrels of oil and $2.4 million in transportation costs in one year.

But how does automation affect these trends? Flexible automation—principally robotics—leads to the reduction of scrap and waste materials, allows for quick-and-easy changeover to environmentally conscious packaging materials, gives manufacturers the flexibility to handle less rigid, lightweight packaging, and allows manufacturers to maximize space and time.

Automation reduces scrap, waste

“Manufacturers will need to take a hard look at reducing more scrap and waste materials if they wish to remain competitive,” says John Dulchinos, president and CEO of Adept Technology Inc., a manufacturer and provider of intelligent, vision-guided robotics. “Robotics and automation in general are more efficient and reliable methods of handling and packaging products. Automated handling far exceeds manual handling in reliability, and innately reduces scrap.”

With all of the environmentally conscious packaging coming into the market, packagers will need the easiest and quickest way to change from one format to another. Fixed machines and manual handling simply cannot keep up. Robots with various end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) capabilities can easily adapt to various changes.

“Flexibility is key to getting the most out of automation,” states Clay Cooper, vice president of corporate development at Applied Robotics, a designer and manufacturer of EOAT and connectivity systems. “With EOAT created for specific tasks and tool changers to facilitate safe, quick and accurate changeovers, packagers can optimize the use of their robots,” he says. “Smarter tooling also allows for more flexibility. Grippers with easy programming, the ability to store many different programs, and adjustable grip forces that handle various sized parts to get the job done are just one example.”

As mentioned earlier, for packagers to minimize their environmental footprint, they must maximize the use of space and time. Flexible automation, with its various configuration potentials (ceiling-mounted robots, multiple EOAT, etc.), not only allows manufacturers to produce more quickly, but to possibly do so in less space than they currently use.

According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDCP), approximately 70% of all foodborne disease is due to viruses spread by direct or indirect contact with infected individuals. Every year, approximately 40,000 cases of salmonellosis are reported in the U.S. and about 600 people die of it, according to the CDCP. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also reports that as many as 76 million illnesses are caused by food contamination every year in the U.S. Add in the effect of product tampering (remember the Tylenol poisonings in the 1980s) and the statistics from OSHA that estimate about 60 repetitive strain injuries account for all “workplace illnesses” and its easy to see how packagers and manufacturers have to seriously review all methods of keeping their employees and products safe.

“We’re hearing more and more concern from our customers about reducing human contact with product in the wake of recent contamination and tampering incidences,” notes Bill Kaup, technical sales manager for automation integrator Oystar Jones. “Packagers using flexible automation can address most of the issues involving contamination, injury, and tampering by virtue of automation’s ability to reduce human contact on products being manufactured and packaged.”

Tedious tasks such as picking and placing products into packaging are ripe for repetitive stress disorders. Automation can accomplish these pick-and-place tasks faster and more efficiently, protecting employees and, at the same time, saving manufacturers costly medical compensation.

In addition, there’s no doubt that humans are innately carriers of disease. The less contact employees have with products—particularly consumable products—the better. Not only is this safer for consumers, it saves manufacturers and packagers the costs of product recalls that also can damage a company’s reputation. Automating contact with products can help reduce the human contact equation and reduce incidences of contamination. Less human contact also reduces the probability of product tampering.

Preserve, protect, prosper

Finally, manufacturers must balance the goals of preserving and protecting with their economic prosperity. Whether the economy is good or uncertain, companies must maximize their packaging efficiency to ensure economic growth. To combat the rising costs of manufacturing, a careful analysis of how a company is using its current factory space is essential.

Maximizing valuable floor space is an efficient method of protecting profitability. As a matter of fact, it’s a cornerstone behind the concept of lean manufacturing. The more one can produce in the same amount of space, the higher the profit potential.

The makeup of employees has been trending toward a more educated resource pool as the economy shifts away from less physical labor jobs to positions requiring greater mental labor. As labor rates continue to rise and packaging diversity multiplies within the wake of new eco-friendly packaging, manufacturers will need to find ways to increase production without increasing employees.

Flexible automation can give packagers and manufacturers the ability to increase production and flexibility. With advances in technology, robot costs are declining, while labor costs are climbing.

“Automation has advanced significantly with regard to speed and reliability,” says Gary Bartlow, director of sales, Americas, at Adept Technology Inc. “Back in the ’90s, with a vision-guided SCARA robot, we were packaging chocolates at 47 pieces/min. and that was considered unbelievably fast. With a parallel robot, that same task can now be accomplished at 130 pieces/min., and the cost of the robots themselves has dropped fairly significantly. So we’re at nearly 2.5 to 3 times the productivity for less money.”

As requirements for shorter runs and faster cycle times continue to mount, packagers will introduce new products and packaging at more accelerated speeds. Automation can help accommodate those speeds as well as the newer products and packages.

Author Information
Rush LaSelle is director of worldwide sales and marketing at Adept Technology.