The growth of e-tail order fulfillment is making automated palletizing a more viable option in the distribution center. This technology does well where there are known carton sizes and known trucks that those cartons have to hit. The need to lower transportation costs is another factor. Those needs can be fulfilled when this technology is combined with good upstream and downstream communications.
“Companies using the newest palletizers may get some benefits from the downstream transportation company with zone skipping,” says Chris Arnold, vice president of operations and solutions development for Intelligrated (www.intelligrated.com). “They’re doing some of the pre-sorting upstream in those facilities where in the past that was done manually. They’re doing smart sortation so pallets are built in ways that better match the downstream customer if there are multiple SKUs on the pallet.”
Some e-tailers are also palletizing totes in distribution for store deliveries. Those totes are then brought back from the stores via backhauls.
“Those totes become a footprint that allow for palletizing by store, perhaps even by store department, without having to be touched by an associate or team member on the floor,” Arnold adds.
For some shippers, their variety of SKUs is so large and their packaging so diverse that palletizer manufacturers have added consulting services to their sales, although software can help the end user through much of the complexity.
“Our system takes family groupings into account to make sure that when you create that pallet, the robot can know the characteristics of that SKU and make sure that SKU is appropriate to put on another,” says Aaron Corcoran, director of logistics for KUKA Systems Corporation North America (www.kukanao.com). “By creating the best pallet for the end customer, we can allow higher cube utilization in a trailer, which results in lower transportation cost. It can also mean fewer pallets and fewer moves for a lift truck, whether loading or unloading those pallets.”
A food DC offers a good example of this scenario. Food and grocery facilities typically handle a wider variety of SKU types and package configurations. Yogurt alone can come into a DC in widely different formats from month to month. Without that DC knowing the manufacturer has changed package design, a palletizer would have to be adaptable enough to recognize those differences and identify them for the people operating it.
“One of our biggest goals is to make this technology cost justifiable but adaptable enough so those outbound and inbound restrictions are limited,” Corcoran says. “Constraints can drive supply chain costs. While accommodating them may make automation cheaper, the supply chain cost system may be driven far higher—making the overall system cost much higher.”
Palletizer providers are looking for ways to enable their equipment to fit into a food and grocery operation as is, inbound and outbound. It’s not yet as easy as putting them to work on a manufacturing line.
“When building a car or a jet, those systems have very tight constraints and repeatable pieces in them,” Corcoran says. “But in the food and beverage and retail worlds those constraints are very loose and random, and that’s what we have to educate customers on—and we need to find a happy medium somewhere.”
Get Maintenance Buy-In
The maintenance people in a manufacturing application are also better equipped to service and operate robotic palletizers. When robotic palletization is introduced into a distribution facility, the maintenance people there may be more familiar with the workings of lift trucks and stretch wrappers than they are with automated systems that run via software and require a bit more of a dedicated preventative maintenance cycle.
“We encourage customers to have maintenance staff work side by side with us when we install a system, so they’re not just getting classroom training on how to run a robot,” Corcoran says. “There’s a lot of on-the-job training with our commissioning staff. Without the maintenance team’s buy-in they can quickly cripple the most advanced, well implemented automation system just by not being engaged enough or taking ownership of it once it’s theirs.”
Effectors with Feeling
Today’s robotic palletizers can pick up cartons of eggs without damaging them, but that’s as much a matter of packaging as it is technology. An example of this provided with experience from KUKA is when cartons of eggs are put into a corrugated case; if the gap between the egg cartons and the box is very small, components in the robotic grippers can feel that and adjust accordingly. But when there’s a bigger gap between eggs and corrugated case, servos may not get the necessary feedback to make adjustments and the result can be scrambled eggs.
What’s in a box doesn’t matter to a robotic palletizer, but what does matter is how that packaging is made and how it’s structured around that product the robotic arm is trying to pick up. If those elements are right, an automated application can have the sensitivity to move product without damage and at greater speeds.
High Speed Handling
KUKA’s high-speed layer picking end-of-arm-tooling can pick up full layers of like product. An order for a pallet of water may be presented to this system with instructions to assemble three layers. This system’s tooling uses rollers to roll underneath the package and pick it up without squeezing or clamping—or damaging.
In mixed layer pallet loads, each layer of product may consist of the same package type but involve one layer of 12-packs, one of water and one of 20-oz trays.
“Without changing the end-of-arm the robot knows what’s coming at it and can change to form each layer, creating a mixed layer pallet.” Corcoran says.
Mixed Case Palletizing
This involves accommodating a stream of product that is not even in layer form. This is a more software-based solution and involves push or pull upstream applications where the robot tells an upstream automated system that it needs case 1, 2 or 3 in that order based on calculations to build the most stable load for that order.
In a push system the robot is told what cases it will receive and in what order it will receive them to create a pallet. When creating a mixed case palletizing system an upstream automated system can create a pull application for the robot. This is a case where you need to be careful about additional islands of automation in your supply chain.
“Every time you modify your warehouse and distribution center, you impact the rest of the supply chain upstream or downstream,” says Brian Keiger, KUKA’s manager of technology sales logistics. “Automating one portion of the process may simply move the challenges to another step in the supply chain. That’s why before we tackle the challenges inside the four walls of the DC, we have to understand what’s happening in receiving or manufacturing and in the store deliveries.”
When automating any DC operation, remember there’s truth in that old cliché “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Implementing islands of automation can sap supply chain efficiency, and that applies to the palletization process too.