Robomachines are now bringing a new level of versatility to packaging and replacing production line machines. Older machines designed to only perform one specific task quickly become obsolete as pallet sizes and product shapes are updated; new collaborative robots can easily be dismantled, moved, and adapted to new tasks.
Modern robomachines are increasingly able to adapt to changing environments, and this ability is extending their longevity in the workplace. For example, rather than fixed claw dimensions limiting a robomachine to just one container or product size, vacuum gripper suction cups mean they can now grasp a variety of products as and when needed.
One recent development is the OctopusGripper which combines suction cups with a flexible gripper allowing for greater and more accurate manipulation of objects. The OctopusGripper consists of twins rows of suction cups tapering along the inside of a silicon tentacle. While the larger suckers are vacuum operated for heavier lifting, the smaller ones work passively for greater, more accurate manipulation and placement.
Advances like this mean companies can redesign and repackage products, and the packaging process can easily be adapted to meet the new specifications.
Previously, packaging machines relied on a form of two-dimensional imaging to let them see what was happening in the world and coordinate their movements. This limited them to only being able to pick up items from predicted locations and from smooth surfaces. Modern 3D imaging allows robomachines to pick up items not laid out on a flat surface or even from storage bins.
Cost of robomachines in the modern workplace
In the past, the prohibitive cost of robots working on a food packaging process was limited to the largest of companies. However, new developments have come with continually decreasing prices, and now robomachines are becoming a reality for smaller companies as well.
Due to their unresponsive nature, the clunky automated machines of yesteryear always required safety cages when working alongside their human counterparts in packaging. But with new advances in vision and sensor technology, collaborative robots can now work closely with humans without the need for such rigid safeguarding. Modern proximity sensors allow machines to avoid harmful contact with humans, which in turn permits a more collaborative relationship between man and machine.
Thanks to the use of soft material, like the silicone tentacles of the OctopusGripper, modern robomachines continue to have an ever greater potential for future use in safe human-robot collaboration workspaces.
Training and teaching
Previously, robomachines interfaces were far more complicated, requiring specialist engineers to programme and update them. As robomachines have progressed, they have also become simpler to use, requiring less training to set up. Modern robomachines feature graphic HMIs (human-machine interfaces) and can be programmed by non-specialists. Also, advanced vision in robomachines means they can orientate and position themselves better with far less user input.
Modern robomachines can also learn from humans. An ability to store precise movements in their memory means they can learn as a human manually moves them through a task and then repeat those movements afterwards as part of the packaging process.
Robomachines are also now more apt at developing an awareness of their own environment. This allows them to move around and transport heavy loads while avoiding human collisions. Autonomous Mobile Robots, known as AMRs, use an internal map to move around a designated area. These maps can either be inputted by a human operator or even learned by the robot itself. The ability to move around autonomously means one robot can perform multiple packaging tasks, and transfer goods from one location to another.
The future of Robomachines
Robots have come a long way since the days of immobile machines kept in safety cages, programmed to perform one specific task. To see the modern developments in Robomachines, Cobots, and Collaborative Robots come along to PPMA Show 2018 at the NEC, Birmingham, UK from 25 to 27 September.