Robots increase output by 40%

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A Sydney-based plastics manufacturer has claimed it increased output by up to 40 per cent when it installed ABB packing robots to replace two-thirds of its line staff.

Power Plastics used the ABB robots to pack polyethylene condiment bottles for use in the food, pharmaceuticals, personal care, household and industrial markets.

According to the company, increasing labour and raw materials costs along with a ballooning number of RSI claims from employees were the key drivers for the move, which now sees approximately 30 per cent of the staff being used in other areas of the business.

“We began in 1997 with four old blow molding machines and six employees,” said Power Plastics’ managing director, Russell Barber.

“We’re not about being the biggest operator out there. We just want to be the best.”

Sydney-based systems integrator, Apex Automation and Robotics, was responsible for the installation.

When Apex’s General Manager, Dany Seif, first looked at the condiment bottle line, he found “two operators on each shift filling plastic-lined cardboard boxes with the bottles, sealing them placing them on pallets”.

According to Seif, Power Plastics required a high degree of flexibility and the ability to handle product diversity.

“Our challenge was to generate a concept using the most suitable technology for the application,” he said.

“ABB have a wide range of robots, user-friendly software and keep our finger on the pulse of their latest developments.

“They also provide a high level of training and technical support to our customers, after the project is completed.”

The robotic cell built for Power Plastics is based around one 6-axis IRB 4400L robot, with a 2.43-meter reach and 30-kilogram payload.

Bottles are fed from two extrusion blow moulding machines (EBMs), along accumulation conveyors, from which the robot picks them—eight, nine or ten at a time, depending on bottle size—using an Apex-designed and built robot head or ‘gripper’.

The gripper uses vacuum cups to pick up a row of bottles, space them and place them upright on a stainless steel platen.

In the next cycle, the gripper rotates 180 degrees, spaces and places the bottles up-side down between each bottle in the first row.

When the platen is full, the cell signals the operator, who inspects the bottles, slips a plastic bag over them, seals it and takes it to a pallet.

The robot sits between two in-feed conveyors, which supply two identical packing zones 180 degrees apart. When the operator is bagging one platen of bottles, the robot works in the opposite zone.

“Apex said they could automate the whole line,” said Barber, “but I was concerned about going from essentially 100 percent inspection to zero inspection.

“I think we got it just right. We have the right amount of operator intervention where we can guarantee quality.

“After six months of moulding millions of bottles, our quality has not been diminished one bit.

“The line started with six employees over three shifts. Now we’re down to one per shift, but that person also works on something else, while running both SBMs.”

The line runs 24 hours a day, so measuring any improvement in output was difficult, said Barber.

“But, on weekends—when we always operated with a skeleton crew—output is up between 30 and 40 percent,” he said.

According to Apex’s project manager, Angelo Di Lorenzo, his company provided the whole turnkey robotic cell from scratch.

“We designed and programmed all the elements, including the gripper, marshalling equipment, PLC (programmable logic controller) the HMI (human-machine interface) and the safety integration, in accordance with the relevant Australian Standards, he said.

“The ABB component is the robot and its controller, an ABB model IRC 5 unit.”

According to Barber of Power Plastics, the robots are allowing the company to grow, while also bringing a positive return of investment.

“What we pay in lease costs annually is much lower than what we were spending on labor costs. It’s been a cash positive investment,” said Barber.

“It took years of thinking to come up with a convincing argument for robotics.”