Palletizing on the fly makes it simple for an operator to restart the system if something goes awry.

Robotic Pallet Building on the Fly

June 13, 2014
With product variety comes packaging complexity—and the puzzle of efficient palletization. Robotic systems like this challenge.

Palletizing is like putting together a puzzle where all of the pieces are the same size and nestle neatly beside each other—until all of a sudden one of the pieces doesn’t match the others.
It’s a common problem for retailers who might receive a one-time shipment of a seasonal or special product; or perhaps they’re the beneficiary of a “bonus” pack that’s 30 percent larger than normal. Despite the good intentions behind the bonus, the pallet pattern they rely on day in, day out, suddenly won’t work for this one product that they may never receive again.

Warehouses are busier than ever, so any hiccup in the supply chain has the potential to snowball.  Consumers are demanding more services and placing more orders directly, while expecting greater personalization in the process.

Automation continues to expand as warehouse operators seek efficiencies and try to accommodate the burgeoning workloads.  

New developments in robotics take out the guesswork and additional effort associated with palletizing boxes of different sizes, shapes and weights. Pallet building on the fly enables organizations to automatically customize each pattern to the shipment without tying up an engineer.

Scanning for Success

Most companies that practice robotic palletizing use devices that work on a specific pattern unless someone programs them differently. It is one thing to be able to create a pattern and repeat this pattern over and over, but the newest technologies build pallet loads to another level.

The latest robotic palletizing tools take a more systemic approach. First, containers are backed in to a dock opening, and a device scans the overall configuration of the container before entering it and scanning the individual boxes inside.  The device uses an advanced visual perception system that’s much like the one in an Xbox Kinect video game.  After determining the best way to remove the carton, the system loads it on a belt to enter the warehouse.

As the carton enters the warehouse, the system records the dimensions, and the algorithm automatically generates a pallet pattern. The cartons move to a robotic palletizing system where the robot picks up the case, or cases when possible, and builds the pattern without any human intervention.

The system is just as effective when scanning the 50th box with identical dimensions as it is the moment it hits an odd-size case—even if it has never seen anything of those dimensions before.

This approach is similar to truck loading applications already on the market. But because retailers receive such a wide variety of shipments, they’ve been slower to adopt automated palletizing. There’s just too much irregularity when the boxes contain anything from high-heeled shoes to tennis rackets to bottles of dish detergent.

Palletizing on the fly, however, is particularly well-suited for retail environments because it manages and creates patterns that would be too complex for traditional robotics systems.

Intuitive Solutions

Though errors are rare (reliability and accuracy are part of the point, after all), palletizing on the fly makes it simple for an operator to restart the system if something goes awry. Because it has designed a pattern, the algorithm can create a visualization of the system’s current state that the operator can match or correct graphically.

The system objective is to take a complex process and make it easy for any warehouse worker, in any environment to use.

Like an iPad, software that enables pallet building on the fly is intuitive so there isn’t a steep learning curve after its installation, even if a company is fairly new to technology in the warehouse.
Pallet building on the fly isn’t a far off dream. Models are currently being beta tested and will likely hit the market in the near term. And as companies continue seeking ways to do more with less, investing in systems that facilitate pallet building on the fly will help further streamline operations.

The goal with this technology is to eliminate headaches in the warehouse when “special” deliveries arrive. Palletizing on the fly will leave the dirty work of puzzle-solving to robotics systems, freeing your engineers from programming patterns for placing boxes.

Tim Criswell is divisional president of Wynright Robotics at Wynright Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of Daifuku Webb and a U.S.-based provider of intelligent material handling systems. He can be reached at [email protected].

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