Pick-and-place Robots: A Sign of Things to Come in Production

Pick-and-place robots and cobots have evolved in recent years to handle even the most delicate pastry and confectionery items without damaging the product, but their applicability is even more relevant today, when the industry is facing personnel shortage, supply chain interruptions, and increased demand. Their high adaptability and throughput allows businesses to keep up with the new market challenges.

With the gentlest grip, a pick-and-place robot arm moves cookies from a conveyor belt into a plastic recipient. It doesn’t drop them, it doesn’t smash them one bit, and it knows where to place them so they don’t stack up in the box. Later on, a similar robotic arm with suction cup end effector picks up the plastic box from a different conveyor belt and places it on a transportation rack. It knows where to put the boxes so they don’t fall from the rack. It even knows to slow down when a human worker approaches.

These scenes appear in a presentation video by Baker Bot producer Apex Motion Control, but they are common now in bakeries around the world. Increasingly, pick-and-place robots take over repetitive work from humans and help produce a better, bigger yield in a shorter time. 

The history of these robots is fairly recent. They are based on the Delta robot designed in the early 1980s by a research team at Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, and they started to be mass produced in 1987 by Swiss company Demaurex, who bought the license from the Institute. In 1999, a revolutionary robot called FlexPicker was launched by ABB Flexible Automation. Today, the pick-and-place robots have developed to have applications in all industries that require higher speed repetitive tasks and precision: computer, car, packaging, and, of course, the food industry.

Today, pick-and-place technology typically uses delta robots (also called parallel robots), 6-axis articulated arms, or collaborative robots (or cobots, the robots that interact with human workers and adapt speed and gestures to protect them from harm). The throughput can reach up to 200 products per minute, vastly superior to what human workers can achieve while maintaining quality. Their vision modules can identify 100 or more products on the moving conveyor per second and they have a high picking accuracy and tool compensation that can bring placement error down to 0mm. 

A pick-and-place robot is always part of a more complex, modular system that can include conveyor belts, ovens, and other bakery equipment. While the initial cost can be steep – depending on the complexity and add-on features, a pick-and-place robot can cost anywhere between several thousands USD to USD250,000 – a good measure of worthiness is if it reaches net ROI on a 12–18-month timeline. After, the investment is fully paid off and the equipment only has maintenance costs, so it can bring profit for a long time.

The Rise of the Robot in the Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has fueled the automation megatrend. Automation was an answer to both concerns for safe handling of food and for production interruptions because of COVID outbreaks. Robots can’t catch viruses, at least not the ones that cause human pandemics. 

Now, manufacturers of different products, especially food, increasingly rely on robotic solutions to automate critical process steps or to fully automate entire systems. Syntegon Technology, for example, recently debuted a newly developed RPP platform that includes quality assurance, user-friendliness and efficient production processes, “an automated turnkey solution from a single source,” as Dr. Silke Blumer, Vice President Strategy and Product Management for the business unit Food at Syntegon, calls it. 

The Syntegon RPP platform automates process steps such as handling, feeding and loading. The new robotics platform is designed as a modular system that allows individual configuration of the robotic cells because “each customer’s project is different,” explains Andreas Schildknecht, Product Manager Robotics at Syntegon. “Together with our customers, we can automate single process steps consecutively and in line with their needs or budgets, following the principle ‘build as you grow’.”

You can read the rest of this article in the Worldbakers Dossier Issue 1/2022, which you can access by clicking here

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