Vacuum Technology-Based Palletizing Meets High-Speed Needs

By: Andrea Bodenhagen, Contributor

With the pandemic-driven ecommerce market growth, changed retail structures continue to drive investment in automated packaging and palletizing. Understanding available tools and grippers is crucial to install a solution that increases efficiency, copes with market needs and enables flexibility and customization. Vacuum technology based gripping solutions play a major role when it comes to cost effective and energy efficient palletizing of a broad variety of products, particularly compared to complex electro-mechanical solutions for the same task.

COVID-19 is changing the way companies and people obtain goods, with lasting effects on the whole supply chain. The sudden demand for social distancing short-term led to increasing production shifts. This sets the stage for a higher degree of automation across all process steps – including packaging and palletizing to reduce dependency on increasingly expensive human labor. Particularly retail, FMCG, pharma and cosmetics, as well as food and beverage industries saw a strong shift for various reasons.

To prevent contamination, fresh food online ordering grew up to 200% and Amazon ramped up its grocery capacity by 160% in the second quarter of 2020, while sales tripled, according to a study by Mordor Intelligence. Accordingly, production was not left unaffected and saw a major pressure to speed up its processes, increase efficiency of supply chains and provide more customized pallet configurations. Despite large investments in automated warehouse systems, distribution centers continue to depend on a huge workforce for picking the respective items. Interact Analytics predicts the need for 28,500 new warehouses by 2025. As this implies a 50% increase in staffing requirements, the pressure on finding enough people or developing more fully automated solutions continues.

A look at technology

Vacuum technology in semi- as well as fully automated systems offer exactly what is needed in terms of cost consciousness, handling efficiency and speed, ergonomics and flexibility. An easy start to automation is the deployment of vacuum lifters. They support employees in palletizing products ergonomically and safely, maintaining an optimum lifting pace and preventing work-related injuries affecting the bottom line. Such lifters allow easy handling and repositioning of bags and boxes, as well as swinging them over a pallet or lowering them carefully onto it.

Vacuum lifters allow a single person to handle a large volume of packages, lifting and moving them without physical effort. An operator can deal with a constant stream of packages of varying dimensions and weight arriving on a conveyor to sort them onto a pallet. Stand-alone systems, as well as overhead crane systems, offer maximum flexibility depending on the facility in which they are planned to be installed.

The huge advantage of vacuum handling for the food industry is that these lifters do not have any sharp gripping parts that could tear holes into the bags, allowing foreign substances to infiltrate ingredients and potentially making them dangerous to consume.

For fully automated palletizing processes using an industrial robot, different vacuum gripping solutions are available and can perform anything from positioning the pallet itself to product placement, up to intermediate slip sheet handling. Safety in vacuum-based palletizing solutions can easily be managed by using ejector technology with valves that remain open in case of power failures, while vacuum gripping force is easily controlled by the vacuum level, ensuring that sensitive objects and packages to be palletized are not destroyed in the process.

Vacuum area grippers with technical foam can move complete layers of cans, pasta or sugar packs onto a pallet, as well as stacking furniture part bundles in the right order. As their surface does not need to be fully covered or can be zoned and equipped with flow-control valves, they are able to palletize a broad variety of products, almost eliminating the need for expensive tool changes. Hence, they are an optimal solution if customized retail store pallets are packed with different products coming in various materials, surface structures, geometries and sizes – offering maximum flexibility.

Suction cups provide a gentle gripping solution and can handle several types of surfaces or objects, leading to less tool changes and increased flexibility. The quality and material characteristics of the suction cups are crucial. Increased productivity can be achieved by using suction cups that are durable as well as wear and oil resistant. For fast processes they should be able to handle shear forces from rapid acceleration and retardation.

Industry 4.0

Independent of the gripping solution chosen, integrating Industry 4.0-ready vacuum ejectors increases system uptime and consistent end-of-line throughput by allowing predictive maintenance. Particularly multistage vacuum ejectors are highly efficient, use less compressed air and can evacuate the system as fast as possible so that the robot can start the next motion earlier. If it is a leaking system, as when handling porous material such as cartons, the ability to maintain a satisfactory vacuum level is equally important. The most effective system is where vacuum is generated as close to the suction cups as possible. Such a system eliminates unnecessary hose volume to be evacuated and the risk of reduced performance due to restrictive piping. Choosing such a decentralized vacuum system eliminates the risk of costly over-sized central vacuum pumps to meet productivity goals. The energy consumption can be reduced tremendously by changing to a more decentralized vacuum solution with one vacuum pump per suction cup.

If choosing an efficient multistage vacuum ejector, evacuation time can be reduced, which substantially increases the possibility to speed up cycle times. State-of-the-art multistage ejectors are up to twice as fast compared to single-stage ejectors, with the same air consumption.

Industry 4.0-ready vacuum ejectors with IO link offer fieldbus-independence, allowing automated parameter setting and reading and writing parameters for various features even during operation and fast tracking of performance issues or system defaults. This has the potential to greatly improve productivity, supporting the need for speed in palletizing operations in logistic distribution centers and warehouses. WMHS

Andrea Bodenhagen is the Global Ownership Content Manager at Piab. In 2020 the company acquired TAWI, a leading manufacturer of smart lifting solutions with global reach. The former Piab Ergonomic Handling division is now merged under the brand TAWI securing an even broader range in ergonomic handling solutions. Piab is evolving automation through progressive gripping, lifting and moving solutions and has done so since 1951 (www.piab.com).

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