How Collaborative Robots Can Free Workers from Harmful Palletizing Work
By: Joe Campbell, Contributor
The process of stacking, loading and securing high quantities of goods onto a pallet, with the aim of safely storing or transporting them, has existed since the beginning of the industrial revolution. Those semi-trailer trucks you see on the highway are likely full of pallets. Pallets of boxes, bags, tubs or buckets.
Without effective palletizing, companies would struggle to get their goods into the hands of consumers. There are around two billion pallets in service right now, with almost half a billion being produced every year. From barrels, to boxes, to bottles – the goods on these pallets keep the world fed, entertained and satiated.
However, these pallets do not stack themselves.
The dangers of palletization
Irving Paz Chagoya, Global Industry Segment Leader for Palletizing and Packaging at Universal Robots is keenly aware of the wide-spread dangers palletizing poses.
“Traditionally, palletization has been a manual operation – and in many cases it still is – we estimate that 250,000 people are employed in this type of work worldwide,” says Chagoya. “Manual palletizing requires these workers to perform the same strenuous task over and over again. Workers bend, lift and twist for hours on end, which can cause long term musculoskeletal damage.”
Manual palletizing creates several ergonomic risk factors, from cumulative work-related muscle disorders and excessive demands on the cardiovascular system to upper limb disorders and joint strain. It is not uncommon to see workers lifting more than 15,000 lbs on an eight-hour shift, presenting a danger to body and posture. Automating palletizing processes can relieve workers from all the associated health risks, reduce tedium and improve overall well-being. This allows workers to both protect their health and focus on tasks more suited to their skills, such as quality assurance.
The opportunity for small to medium-sized businesses
Although the repetitive and often dangerous nature of palletizing means it lends itself very well to automation, progress has been gradual. Previously, automated palletizing has been limited to large enterprises with both the floor space and funds to install and operate the bulky machinery previously required to undertake the task.
However, this is no longer the case. The increased use of cardboard to pack and store goods, advances in collaborative robotics (or cobots) capable of increased payloads and the falling price point of automation has opened up the market for collaborative palletizing. As a result, SMEs are now automating palletizing.
For SMEs, automating the process allows them to not only protect and better use the human workforce, but to increase productivity too. This allows SMEs to be more competitive against larger manufacturers and offer better working environments for their staff.
“In many factories where we’ve installed our palletizing solution, the palletizing task is the bottleneck that prevents company growth. Increasing palletizing capacity with a collaborative robot has allowed those businesses to produce more and hire more workers in the upstream production processes. In addition, having a collaborative robot palletizing cell enables the business to offer better working conditions to the humans who take care of the robot,” says Sam Bouchard, CEO of Robotiq, a developer of robotic tools to free human hands from repetitive tasks.
Cobot Palletizers: Two Companies’ Stories
The end-of-the-line operations posed a severe ergonomic risk to workers at L’Oréal India’s plant in Pune, where a single operator would handle more than 18,000 lbs per shift while manually palletizing. L’Oréal’s mission to create a safer work environment led them to Universal Robots. Now, two UR10 cobots are used for automatic palletization, resulting in a 5% OEE improvement and a significantly improved ergonomic work environment.
Napco Brands is a Chicago-based company that roasts, packs and distributes coffee. In order to expand production, the company looked into automated palletizing as it wanted to free up an already scarce workforce to handle other, less ergonomically challenging tasks. The company installed two cobot palletizers; each cell now operates two shifts, working 18-20 hours, handling 1,500 boxes daily, totaling 180,000 single-serve coffee cups. ROI was less than a year with 15% increase in throughput and cost savings.
Solving the labor crisis
Across many global markets, a labor crisis threatens to undermine operations in manufacturing and industrial companies. According to the most recent data from Bureau of Labor Statistics, the U.S. manufacturing sector is still struggling to fill vacancies as around 695,000 manufacturing jobs remained unfilled in March 2023.
Manufacturing businesses are crying out for talent. The challenge is compounded for small and medium-sized businesses. They generally have less room to maneuver than larger competitors when it comes to attracting and retaining workers of all skill levels.
In addition to this, musculoskeletal problems – caused by the more manual tasks associated with manufacturing (such as palletizing) – often lead to early exclusion of senior workers from this type of work.
Dispelling the myths
However, despite these workforce pressures, many have been slow to automate. Often due to a lack knowledge, businesses fear the perceived expense of investing in automation and also don’t want to be seen taking jobs away from humans.
This doesn’t need to be the case. On the topic of cost, it’s been shown that cobots can achieve ROI in around 12 months.
As for dispelling the fears of job losses, cobots are designed to work alongside humans, not replace them. With minimal training, existing workforces can design, implement and monitor automated palletizing solutions. This frees them up to take other less risky and monotonous tasks – or take on more complex roles, opening up doors for career progression. As we know from McKinsey, workers with a greater sense of purpose enjoy their work more and are likely to stick around.
The next five years
Looking ahead, collaborative palletizing solutions are well suited to wide a range of industries, these include food and beverage, electronics and pharmaceuticals. This adaptability combined with advances in cobot technology, means it’s likely we’ll see fewer and fewer workplace injuries due to manual palletization.
In the long-term, the changing workplace will make it easier for workers to stay in the workforce longer if they want to, while factory operators will hopefully see both productivity gains and increased revenues. There is strong evidence for these claims, based on successful global deployments of cobot-powered palletizing solutions. For example, after conducting an ergonomic risk analysis, L’Oréal India found that manual operators were lifting 8,500 kg (18,739 lbs) per eight-hour shift, creating significant risks to their health. The company deployed cobots on palletizing applications, eliminating ergonomic risk and freeing workers to focus on less dangerous tasks. The solution also boosted palletizing throughput and the cosmetic giant’s Pune facility experienced a 5% Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE) improvement due to the time saved in pallet replacement.
In short, palletizing can be dull and dangerous–the sort of task that machines excel at. And businesses of all sizes would be doing their human workers a favor by lifting them out of palletizing roles and helping them to focus on more engaging and higher value work. Let’s let the cobots do the heavy lifting. Literally. WMHS
Joe Campbell is Senior Manager, Applications Development at Universal Robots (www.universal-robots.com). Universal Robots has sold more than 75,000 collaborative robots which are used in production environments every day around the world.
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