RESIST THE URGE TO BLAME THE ROBOTS
Production and packing lines will stop working for a number of reasons, yet the default assumption and human impulse will often be that a robotic malfunction is to blame. Sometimes, when there is an element of complexity or variety in the operation, there’s an assumption that robotics is simply not up to the job.
Instead of scapegoating the technology, Paul Wilkinson, Commercial & Information Systems Manager at Pacepacker Services, provides a balanced perspective, sharing five reasons why the buck does not always rest with automated intelligence.
- A robot is only as good as its programming
It is essential that robots and other automated sections of your line are programmed to recognise and handle every stock-keeping unit (SKU), including all variants at the primary and secondary packaging stage. This means investing an equal amount of time understanding the full project scope as selecting and specifying equipment. Always check that the appropriate programming is available, compatible and easily accessible.
With product handling and case loading, problems may occur when integrators don’t fully consider the movement of the robotic arm from pick point to place point, the timings on the line, etc. To ensure all current and future expectations are considered, involve all personnel, from operator level up to directors, in discussions.
Utilise the knowledge of experienced line operators to pre-empt the types of daily challenges that arise from the products being handled, different fill levels, poor-quality sealing, spillages and other variables and factor into your automation planning.
- Keep your workforce on-side
Rather than being wary about the impact of automation, turn your workforce into champions of the technology. For operational reasons you may reassign them to more skilled or technical duties, however be mindful that in doing so you could be removing an essential layer of visual monitoring and inspection.
Instead of relying on short-term troubleshooting, encourage all operatives to stay vigilant and take responsibility for thinking through and resolving issues that might cause potential bottlenecks.
Give clear, comprehensive training to those responsible for line changeovers. For example, the impact of setting guides to the wrong width can be a common issue, which if not corrected swiftly can jam a production line, triggering a machine shutdown.
Although thankfully rare, human actions, like disabling robots, should be considered. Maintain workforce motivation by reinforcing how much you value their support and assign responsibility for monitoring the new equipment.
- Even the best teams need sound on-going technical support
The most clued-up your workforce can benefit from partnering with integrators that offer strong, on-going technical support. Even with the most well programmed robot, needs change after installation. Usually this will be driven by new customer production requirements. Yet, it’s surprising how often technology is mothballed when it can easily be reprogrammed to accommodate new production requirements.
Wisely, most companies investing in automation regard high-quality technical support as a business prerequisite. A good supplier should also help to make in-house reprogramming easier. For example, Pacepacker is helping to eliminate programming engineer visits for customers with our new Pallet+ software.
- Good Housekeeping is more than a magazine
Unless systems offer highly sophisticated self-diagnostics, routine actions like checking accumulation of product residues or dust can help avoid vital sensors being blocked or conveyor belts jamming which could trigger an overload.
Likewise, for smooth, uninterrupted operation, monitor wear and tear on key parts. Regular checks during scheduled downtime can help to prevent serious failures.
- A good grasp on end effectors
As with programming, a robot is only as good as its end effectors. Where a single robot is performing multiple actions and handling a range of pack types and sizes, changeovers may involve substituting an end effector. Robust training and knowledge of processes will ensure the correct tool is selected for the job.
To increase the longevity of different end effectors store them appropriately. For example, compressing a grippers foam pads when not in use can impact their ability to handle product effectively.
Overall, worker ‘buy-in’ at all levels is critical to seamless automated production success. A robotic malfunction is likely to be just part of the story and in most instances robots can’t be blamed for a production blip. In fact, well-programmed and maintained robots can liberate your workforce from mundane, labour intensive tasks, enabling everyone to use their time more productively and pursue more satisfying and professionally challenging career paths.