Robotic systems for food & beverage packaging

Published: 12/10/2023

Robots are increasingly becoming the protagonists in the automated food & beverage packaging lines of companies that have adopted innovative Industry 4.0 technologies, helping to create efficiency and flexibility in production flows. Robotic systems quickly and accurately perform repetitive tasks and manipulate heavy loads, allowing human operators to dedicate time to specialised tasks, relieving them of burdensome and unergonomic tasks.

The robots can be integrated into different stages of the packaging line, creating complete, modular and customised automated solutions, including front-of-line operations such as depalletising and end-of-line operations such as labelling and palletising.

The advantages of robots

Robotic systems for food & beverage packaging represent an effective and advantageous solution to optimise the efficiency and flexibility of an automatic packaging line, meeting the market’s demands for diversification, quality and safety of food products. Below is a description of the most significant advantages.

Increased productivity: robots are fast and accurate. They reduce cycle times, thanks to their ability to operate at high frequency continuously and in synchrony with the other automatic machines in the supply chain.

Quality and accuracy: robotic systems quickly and accurately perform repetitive operations even under extreme environmental conditions (e.g. low or high temperatures) while maintaining the required quality standards.

Flexibility: robots integrated in packaging lines easily adapt to different formats, sizes and types of product. They are prepared and equipped to perform different tasks. In addition, their ease of programming and parameter modification facilitate production changeover operations.

Integration with sensors and vision systems: robots can be integrated with position sensors, 3D sensing and vision systems managed by special recognition software. With these technologies, robotic systems are able to check the quality of the product during handling, with the possibility of rejecting it if it is unsuitable. In addition, they can autonomously perform pick & place operations such as picking loose products arranged in a random order, sorting them by type, shape and colour in the appropriate packaging.

Increased food product safety: the equipment of a robotic food & beverage system is designed with materials that reduce the risk of contamination (hygienic design) and to withstand washing for constant cleanliness, complying with hygiene regulations. Thanks to integration with detection and vision sensors, the robots perform continuous quality control of the product being handled. Furthermore, at the packaging stage, through labelling and traceability systems, they guarantee process control and safety.

Ease of programming: thanks to modern digital technologies and accurate management software, programming of interconnected robotic systems is becoming increasingly easy and intuitive. Off-line programming and virtual simulation offer a big advantage in this respect.

Some technical notes on robots for packaging

For versatility and completeness of movement, articulated robots are among the most common in packaging lines. Their kinematic chain is composed of rigid arms connected by joints, called ‘axes‘, each of which allows a degree of movement between two consecutive arms. Rotational joints allow a rotational motion, while prismatic joints allow a translational motion.

Articulated robotic systems with 6 axes, also known as anthropomorphic robots, can perform complex movements, such as rototranslations, in the workspace.

On the wrist, the end of the kinematic chain of the articulated robot, the gripping device is attached. Depending on the type and size of the product to be handled, the gripping device can be either a vacuum suction cup or a mechanical gripper with appropriate geometries. The gripping device must be designed to ensure a secure grip for handling and to allow quick and easy replacement during production changes.

Cartesian or linear robots are also used in packaging lines. They have a simple structure in that they perform linear movements along orthogonal X, Y and Z axes.

Which robots for food & beverage packaging

When deciding to integrate a robot system into a packaging line, a number of considerations must be taken into account, such as the process to be automated, the working environment, protective structures and barriers, the required range of action, the load (the weight of the product to be handled and its size), the production cycle time and thus the speed of execution. We have selected three types of robot that we consider to be among the most significant for food & beverage packaging: the delta robot, the articulated robot and the cobot.

Delta robots

Thanks to their special architecture, delta robots (also known as parallel kinematics) are suitable for high-speed pick-and-place operations of medium-low loads in primary and secondary packaging lines.

Their standard configuration consists of three electric motors mounted high on a supporting structure. Each motor moves an arm composed of two links arranged in a parallelogram. The opposite end of the three arms is connected to a central platform, on which the gripping device is mounted. Through the arms moved by the three motors, the central platform is moved in three-dimensional Cartesian space (keeping parallel to the X-Y plane). An additional motor is used to realise the fourth axis of rotation parallel to the Cartesian Z axis, so that the object gripped by the gripping device can be oriented.

Having positioned the motors away from the moving part, where the gripping device is mounted, makes the latter particularly light, so that the speed of the work cycle can be increased, without compromising positioning accuracy and precision. If the system integrates sensors and vision equipment with the appropriate recognition software, one of the most effective applications of the delta robot is to pick up products at high speed, which are arranged in random order on a conveyor belt, sorting them independently by type, shape and colour into the appropriate packages, and discarding the defective ones.

The gripping device must guarantee safe gripping of the load, subjected to the strong acceleration of movements. The gripping device can be a vacuum suction cup or a mechanical gripper with appropriate geometries, depending on the surface and type of product to be handled.

Articulated robots

Usually characterised by 4 to 6 axes, they are robots capable of performing complex movements. The gripping device mounted on the wrist (the end of the robot’s kinematic chain) can therefore reach a variety of positions and orientations within the working volume. Their versatility and wide range of offerings in terms of load capacity and reach make them suitable for pick & place, sorting, boxing and packaging operations of various types and sizes of food & beverage products. These robotic systems can also be equipped with detection sensors, vision equipment and barcode readers, so that they can autonomously manage the positioning and orientation of the product, control its quality, traceability and process safety.

Cells with articulated robots capable of handling heavy loads and with a large radius of action, are used for depalletising operations at the start of the line and palletising at the end of the line.
Particularly in the palletising phase, the robot cell, controlled by specific software, must also be able to stack on a pallet packages of different sizes and types, coming from several lines, such as boxes, bottle packs, envelopes and other types of articles, positioning them so that there is no damage and that the load is well stable. The structure of the gripping device is crucial for the safe handling of loads.

Cobot, the collaborative robot

Cobots are 6-axis robots, similar to articulated robots, but equipped with special safety and motion control sensors, making them suitable for working in the presence of human operators in the same area, even interactively. There is therefore no need to isolate these robotic systems with protective structures and barriers, thus enabling optimisation of the production line footprint. In addition to sharing the work area with human personnel, they are also very versatile, being able to perform a variety of operations with simple and intuitive programming.

Characterised by the ease of integration in open cells, in a food & beverage packaging line the cobots are suitable for handling medium-low loads for operations ranging from product picking at the beginning of the line, to pick & place, packaging and packing in cardboard boxes, to labelling and palletising at the end of the line. They are also suitable for serving automatic machines, interacting with and relieving human operators of heavy and non-ergonomic work.

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