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While it has not yet arrived, the time is approaching in packaging and processing manufacturing when it will be nearly impossible to discuss advancements in automation without addressing congruent developments in artificial intelligence (AI). AI and automation are particularly intertwined in robotics, supplying workforce-enhancing solutions that not only complete repetitive tasks but also support and improve decision-making processes.
Already, industrial robots with a high risk of breakdown can self-minimise downtime by pre-scheduling maintenance and ordering spare parts or by analysing vision system and sensor data to reduce the time taken to complete a task. Network-connected robots use AI to either learn simultaneously or from one another, reducing the time it takes to understand new jobs. AI with machine vision systems is also supporting significant developments in quality control, enabling robots to identify faulty products and remove them from the production process without human intervention.
AI-enhanced automated packaging plays an extensive role in ensuring the supply chain can handle the increased workload created by e-commerce. At a macro level, automation that can think for itself provides integrated solutions to compensate for lack of labour. More targeted solutions, however, are proving that automation can increase a packaging operations’ bottom line while improving the efficiency of the supply chain.
Smart robots equipped with advanced sensors that feed data to complex algorithms powering AI and machine learning will further improve work processes and the supply chain, so much so that collaborative robots (cobots) might represent the model application for AI and automation. Unlike robots that are traditionally isolated from workers and are programmed to follow specific instructions without regard for humans, cobots operate in cooperation with humans in a shared workspace. In fact, cobots represent the fastest-growing segment of industrial automation. They are expected to jump tenfold to 34 per cent of all industrial robot sales by 2025, according to the International Federation of Robotics. This statistic goes hand-in-hand with advances in AI capabilities that will pave the way for further growth in autonomous robots. Adaptive robots that are capable of learning can recognise inefficiencies and make changes on-the-fly to operate more effectively.
AI is also being used to advance end-of-arm-tooling (EOAT) changeovers. Production runs in the packaging and processing industries continue to get shorter, making downtime costlier than ever before. There is now the capability for a robot to understand what’s coming down the line, change its own EOAT to meet the immediate need and then perform its task.
Mobile robots and cobots will grow in use as AI continues to reach higher levels of intelligence. The advantages are vast as untethered or wireless robots with seventh axis movements will create a flexible manufacturing environment.
Robots are also going to be safer to operate around humans. The machines can learn tasks efficiently using AI, not only to improve processes, but to avoid collisions and reduce risk. This model could permit robots almost anywhere on the manufacturing floor. For example, if a worker walks too close to a working robot, the machine will go into “safe mode”: operating at a slower speed, with limited force and more controlled actions. When the worker leaves the area, the robot will resume full performance.
While it can be challenging to manage the balance between replacing humans with automation and increasing unemployment, companies can address this by supporting employees through retraining programs to enable workers to “upskill”. One leading robot manufacturer recently explained how, in its workforce, it had replaced workers with robots for metal casting, which was a dangerous job. The company worked on retraining employees for newly created roles, such as application engineers and designers – jobs that didn’t exist within the organisation eight years ago. This model of retraining the workforce can also be a cost-effective method of acquiring new skillsets within the organisation, with retraining often a lower-cost option than recruiting new employees.
The PACK EXPO portfolio of trade shows, produced by The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (PMMI), provides the latest innovations and technologies to encourage and assist with AI and automation. Seminars on the show floor at the Innovation Stage and The Forum also open educational gateways for best practices and new applications, as well as interactive discussions on what has worked for others in the industry.
The next stop in the PACK EXPO portfolio of trade shows is PACK EXPO East 2020 (3-5 March; Pennsylvania Convention Center, Philadelphia). The three-day event will bring together 7,000 attendees, with 400 companies showcasing new technologies in 100,000 net square feet of exhibit space. PACK EXPO East attendees will enjoy all the educational and networking opportunities traditionally offered at PACK EXPO, plus more face-to-face time with exhibitors to find applicable answers.
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