Businesses throughout the UK’s processing and packaging sectors are critically aware of the ‘double whammy’ of Brexit and COVID-19. The effect of the former is to limit the number of low-cost workers with the right to work in the UK. At the same time, the transmissibility of the virus has disrupted workforces through absences and restrictions within the working environment.

What then is the response to the twin challenges? Neil Sandhu, Chair of UKIVA (UK Industrial Vision Association) puts it this way:

“Both of these factors can be addressed by automating more processes and procedures, with vision technology making a major contribution.”

Over the last decade, automation and vision systems have become deeply embedded in packaging, manufacturing, warehousing and logistics. New equipment based on ever-improving technologies has allowed businesses to operate with greater speed and accuracy, as well as with lower labour costs. The trend was established before Brexit and COVID-19 arose, but has now accelerated throughout industry and commerce.

Vision and Robotics

Automation in the workplace is at its most common in the use of robots. Robots are becoming ever more sophisticated, and vision systems are the key technology behind the advances in their capabilities. 

Vision Systems

Vision systems are very well-established in inspection and quality assurance applications, from scanning bar codes to scrutinising units passing on a conveyor. Advances in 2D camera technology have made them faster and more accurate, but there is a step change with the advent of 3D cameras and spectral imaging, also known as multiband imaging.  

Multiband imaging deals with multiple images covering the spectrum from the visible to the longwave infrared. The range of infrared technologies includes NIR (near infrared), SWIR (shortwave infrared) and LWIR (longwave infrared). The power of the imaging equipment allows for detailed analysis of products, packs and atmospheres, as well as of animals and humans.

In practical applications, multiband or hyperspectral equipment is being used for many purposes including:

  • agriculture (eg to detect early onset of plant disease, measurement of pesticides, milking cows)
  • eye care (eg for eye health diagnosis)
  • food (eg for identification of defects, contamination and sortation)
  • environmental monitoring (eg measurement of emissions)
  • engineering (eg to identify cracks and faults)

The range of applications testifies to the power of modern vision technology, so it is no surprise to find it being used in packaging and manufacturing, in particular for robotic automation and inspection equipment.

Robotic automation

As vision systems have become faster and smarter the range of uses moves on, including the enhancement of robotic automation. With vastly improved diagnostic and measurement capabilities, there is less reliance on human interpretation. Where previously in production and packaging environments there was a need for a skilled and experienced workforce, the latest generation of robots can perform a complete range of self-guided functions.

AMRs vs AGVs

AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) can understand and move through an environment and are replacing AGVs (automated guided robots). AGVs have been in use for decades but suffer from the limitations of depending on a guided routing system, usually, wires or magnets laid under the workspace floor. If any change to the route is required, there is usually a significant cost in changing the routing system. Typically AGVs have basic sensors which stop the vehicle when an obstruction is identified, but there is very limited adaptability to changing environments.

By contrast, AMRs can navigate dynamically, using powerful sensors and cameras to guide them around obstructions, and AI (artificial intelligence) capabilities that allow the AMRs to learn about their environments and tasks. The same sensor and vision technology allow AMRs to perform precise tasks, and to adapt their behaviour for different requirements, such as handling packs of various sizes or selecting alternative locations within a warehouse.  The adaptability, speed and accuracy of AMRs can result in a highly cost-effective solution for multiple packaging, handling and processing applications.

Other equipment which combines machine vision with robotics include:

  • robotic arms for pick and place operations
  • robots for palletising and depalletising
  • mobile robots for identifying and selecting products in warehouses
  • robotic assembly of complex parts on a production line
  • robots undertaking precise, high level quality control and inspection functions
  • robots for explosives identification and handling for the military

As AI technology progresses, the range of tasks carried out by robots with machine vision will undoubtedly continue to expand. We have seen a change of attitudes to investment in automation on the back of the pressures created by the COVID-19 pandemic and limited labour availability. Soon, we can expect to see increased adoption of automation and robotics as businesses seek to improve performance, efficiency and profitability.

Find Robotics and Vision Equipment

Through the PPMA, it is straightforward to find suppliers of robotics and vision equipment in a comprehensive range of categories. The range includes complete systems as well as components for integration into systems. Ancillary equipment such as lighting (for improved camera performance) is also covered. You can explore companies that meet your needs for robotics and vision equipment with the following links: