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Automated Palletizing Options: Finding a Happy Medium

Does your application fall into the sweet spot between manual palletizing and large-scale industrial robots?

Robotic Palletizer Inquiry

cobot system with pallet
Robotics in distribution operations aren’t exactly the stuff of the Jetsons; you see them every day. Because end-of-line palletizing involves so much repetitive motion, it’s a prime target for automation. It fits the profile of easily-profiled, repeatable and low-value labor tasks. It’s also back-breaking and un-ergonomic. How do you know if a robotic palletizing option makes sense? And what type of automation fits you?

The options: manual, full robotic, and cobot palletizing.

When you think of robotic palletizing, you might think of a massive robot. But as automation technology becomes cheaper, lots of new, leaner options are appearing in the market. A recent example of this is a robotic palletizing package that combines a cobot with all needed hardware and software. These systems are a midpoint between a large, expensive robot investment and plain-Jane manual palletizing.

Does your operation fall into that middle? Here’s a look at the two opposite ends of the palletizing spectrum:

Type Industrial Palletizer Manual Palletizing
Challenges Flexibility: Often an operation has to orient around these systems completely, not the other way around.

Footprint: They take up a lot of space, which may not be feasible in a tight real estate market.

Changeover time: Installing and programming take a long time and often require outside expertise.

Cost: Conventional robotic palletizers are expensive, at least upfront. They have a defined ROI that makes sense for the right application at the right operation.

Ergonomics: Because it’s so repetitive and strenuous, the manual method creates conditions ripe for the kind of musculoskeletal injuries that account for around 30 percent of all lost workdays.

Human potential: To put it bluntly, palletizing is boring. You may have trouble keeping employees in this role, and your human workers are probably better suited for tasks other than putting boxes on a pallet.

Time: Manually building a pallet is time-consuming, and it only gets slower as the day goes on.

Cost: Manual palletizing has significant ongoing costs and little upfront investment. You’re paying workers over time, but there are more than just the compensation costs. You must consider the cost of administration, supervision and injuries.

Cobot palletizing solutions: more accessible, flexible than industrial robots

A cobot palletizer system serves as a “bridge” between the large systems we often think of as robotic palletizing and manual stacking. Here’s how they solve some of the issues presented by industrial robots:

    • Space efficiency: Cobot systems have a smaller footprint than a typical industrial robot, so you don’t have to rearrange your whole line around them. They anchor simply to the floor, and you can move them or add more as your business changes.
    • Little information technology overhead: The systems we offer combine the software and hardware, so you won’t have to program the robot. You just have to create the pallet pattern, which is fairly easy using the included interface. This video shows how it works.
    • Economical for lighter loads: Suited for a maximum capacity of around 28 pounds (though higher capacities will be available in the future), these systems are on the low end of the payload spectrum, but they’re also on the low end of cost. If your product is lighter in weight, a cobot system might offer you the opportunity to automate without investing in an expensive robot.

Cobot systems are on the low end of payload capacity, but they’re also on the low end of cost. This makes them a unique opportunity for palletizing lighter-weight boxes and standardized loads. They serve perfectly in applications where the load profile is right.

cobot

Cobot palletizers vs. traditional robotic palletizers

Type Industrial robotic palletizers Cobot palletizers
Advantages Flexibility: Industrial robots are more flexible and can handle more types of loads than cobot alternatives. They can also handle taller stacks, up to 3 meters. Cobots can deal with load heights up to 2.75 meters.

Speed: Lightning-fast, with up to 40 bags/minute rates. Cobots are also fast (up to 13 cycles/minute), but cannot match those rates. Industrial robots can lift entire layers of cartons at once, where cobots are one at a time.

Capacity: Conventional systems can handle significantly more weight than cobots, which are limited to smaller, lighter loads. Cobots are currently limited to about 28 pounds, where traditional can handle much more–hundreds or thousands of pounds in some cases.

Effectors: Traditional robotics have a full industry built around them that offers a much larger array of effectors, clamps and other handling devices. This allows you to swap those around for different tasks or shift work. Cobots (at least currently) lack the array of options.

Cost: Conventional robotic palletizers are much more expensive than cobot systems. Think double or triple the cost when fully implemented.

Footprint: You can place a cobot system in less than half the space an industrial robot occupies. Cobot systems are about the size of two pallets.

Changing tasks: Cobots are easily shifted from task to task, with minimal upfront work to do so compared to industrial robotics.

Programming & IT: While cobots require very little programming and can be reprogrammed at the plant with minimal training, industrial robots require extensive, specialized knowledge.

Implementation time: Cobots can be deployed in two weeks, where industrial robots require months.

When comparing industrial robots to cobots, remember the key differences: deployment, speed, flexibility, costs and implementation. Both systems serve a role and have their strengths depending on the nature of your operation. Both improve on manual processes and both offer easily-justified ROI for the right situation. 

Eliminating the strain and pain of manual palletizing

warehouse worker using teach pendant on palletizing cobot

While reducing some downsides of full robotic palletizing, cobot-based systems are still advanced automation, which means they offer structural improvements over manual palletizing in key areas:

  • They eliminate the ergonomic strain on human employees, which can enlarge your available labor pool and help keep your workforce healthy. Better ergonomics reduce the cost of injuries, which can be significant with a process like palletizing.
  • These systems palletize at a rate of around 13 boxes per minute. Humans get tired and slow down, whereas cobots maintain a consistent speed throughout an entire shift.
  • You probably don’t have people lining up to put boxes on a pallet all day long. By automating palletizing, you can put people to work in other areas of your warehouse, where they can accomplish more value-add tasks.

By providing flexibility and ease of use, cobot-based palletizing solutions blend the robust support of robotic automation while eliminating some of the barriers to large systems.

Finding the happy medium

Technology will continue to evolve, with robotic systems becoming ever more accessible. If you were wondering when your operation’s needs and the availability of robotics would meet, that day may be here sooner than you think—if it’s not here already. Remember that of these options, there can be a blend of answers. Some lines make sense to continue manually; others may need full automation, while others could be handled with a cobot system.


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