Cobots in filling and packaging plants

Robots master complexity

Robot systems are playing an increasingly important role. These reliable assistants are fully integrated into Optima's filling and packaging systems. All the divisions in the company are using robots in their systems – some of them "cobots", i.e. collaborative robots. However, the scale and utilization can vary greatly.

What about robots and packaging? Most of us will have the common palletizing robots in mind. Their strong arms have been in use for decades now, for stacking loads in the final stages of the packaging process. In reality, however, robots are required for several other process steps – usually much more intricate and agile kinds than those required for palletizing. Another special feature: Frequently, the robots cannot be identified at first glance when you look at the equipment in conventional packaging lines, some of which fill the entire space. When they are well integrated, they appear to be playing a secondary role, but appearances can be deceptive! It is impossible to imagine packaging technology without robots. They provide flexibility, increase the level of automation and make it possible to create individual applications that are tailor-made to perfectly meet customer requirements. The same is true of Optima systems. For some time now, all of its divisions have been developing specific robotic applications. Which robot kinematics and systems are used, and the scope of their usage, depends on the respective applications. Depending on the product to be packaged and the packaging materials used, there can be considerable variations.

Important for you
  • In all Optima divisions, robots in primary and secondary packaging processes are integrated into the machines, including the control systems.
  • Robotics mean that packaging systems are becoming more flexible and fail-safe approaches are supported.
  • During the filling of cosmetics and personal care products, robots sort and feed containers etc. that have been delivered in an unorganized way.
  • Frequent format changes can now be performed in a fully automated process using a robot.
  • Cobots at Optima, for example, which replenish raw materials in the nonwovens area, require no additional safety systems and, if necessary, provide assistance for interactions with operators.
  • In multi-product systems, such as those used in the consumer and pharmaceutical sectors, the combination of mechatronics and robotics offers maximum flexibility.
Robot picker detail view
Flexible robotics for packaging cosmetics: Here, two five-axis robots take caps from trays and transfer them to the pick and place module.
Robots bring order to chaos

Robots are becoming problem solvers, for instance, when products are manufactured in numerous different versions and the packaging materials are delivered in a chaotic or disorganized way. This is the case in the cosmetics sector. New shapes of bottles and closures are always being developed for shampoo, shower gel, etc. Immediately after it was founded in 2011, Optima Consumer took up this
challenge and developed its first robot application. A camera system detects loose bottles and a high-performance picker sorts them. For cosmetics and toiletries, it is normal for over 20 different products to be filled and packaged on a single machine. Klaus Hahn, Head of the Optima Consumer Competence Center, says: "Here robot systems are making a significant contribution when customers have to make frequent format changes. This means that completely automated format changes are possible in the most advanced version. An off-the-peg robot is not suitable for this task. Hahn is referring to the close cooperation there is with the robot manufacturers, who adapt the kinematics required to meet customer-specific needs. "This is how we can save on weight and interfaces, and customize special applications," says Hahn.

When no scratches can be tolerated

As well as the wide range of formats, the need for high quality is one of the reasons for using robots in consumer packaging lines, not just for feeding in components, but also for the core process. The same is true for operators in countries where feeding is still done manually due to low labor costs. Robots are superior to humans in situations where no scratches can be tolerated. This is why Optima Consumer has machines in its program where the main process is based exclusively on the use of robot kinematics. This also holds true for flexible sorting systems (OPTIMA RH2-5) for containers, caps, spray pumps, etc. in the cosmetics and chemical industries. Five-axis robots pick up vertical or horizontal products from different trays. These are modern delta pickers, which have two additional movements on the tool holder (turning and swiveling).
Optima Consumer frequently uses 3D printed parts to handle the variety of formats. Hahn points out the impact of 3D printing technology on time-to-market: "We are able to provide customers all over the world with a rapid new format pack by sending the engineering data for it directly to them or to a local Optima office."

Robot 3D components in robot gripping tool
Optima uses 3D printing to rapidly adapt robotic systems to new formats. If required, new format sets can be printed out at the location where they will be used.
The OPTIMA MultiUse Filler combines numerous robotic systems. These include a denesting robot that supplies various containers to the filling and closing process.
Robot and machine as a single unit

Typically for robot applications by Optima Consumer, the robot and machine are almost completely merged together, which means that the entire system remains compact. The control system is also integrated. The robot motion is generated in the superior machine control system. Additional servo movements are integrated into the robot tools from a molding, effortlessly integrating movements with those of the robot kinematics. This integrated control and operating concept transforms the machine operator into a process engineer. He or she can directly enter the positions and movements of the various kinematic systems via a single HMI screen, so enabling them to fully concentrate on the specific filling or packaging process. In modern machines, there are no specific programming environments for individual robot suppliers.

Robotic systems are well established in autoloaders for producing coffee capsules. They are able to fully automatic load coffee capsules from the transport cartons into the magazines of the filling and closing machines. The six-axis robots that have been deployed pay for themselves, especially in three-shift work patterns. They can also be mounted on a linear axis, which triples the working area and keeps the machine's footprint to a minimum. Even though this task is still performed manually by operators at some medium-sized manufacturers, cobots (collaborative robots) are gaining ground here. Another future area of use for cobots is in the consumer sector with processes related to what is known as decoupled production. Hahn says: "The technical solutions already exist for this kind of optimization of logistics." For example, shampoo bottles are filled, then first stored, then labelled and packed in a second stage. The required tasks can be performed by a combination of Cobot and AGV (Automated Guided Vehicle).

Special applications for hygiene products

At Optima Nonwovens, robot technology will probably never be more important than it already is today for filling and packaging cosmetics, personal care products, coffee capsules and so on. The division relies on high-performance mechatronic systems, especially for the primary packaging of diapers, feminine hygiene products, etc. Global Account Manager Markus Urich explains: "There is a clear cost-benefit to using robots in secondary and tertiary packaging, especially in situations where flexibility is required when grouping individual product packages in cardboard boxes. This is the case for example with panty liners, which are available in various sizes of packaging and a wide range of alignment options. It is much more difficult to cope with the resulting range of variants when they are placed in the shipping carton with mechatronic components than with a robotic system. 
Customers who include small gifts like wet wipes, CDs, booklets, promotional flyers and bonus point systems into the primary or secondary packaging are increasingly using automated processes assisted by robots. More areas of application for new robot applications are emerging in the nonwovens sector, in conjunction with the trend towards increasing automation, for example to assist with or fully automate a format change. In most cases, a single operator can replace certain mechanical components, which can be done in ten to 15 minutes. A robot solution developed by Optima Nonwovens would be able to do this in a fully automated manner and faster and, above all, with no errors. Together with the latest digitalization techniques, the software in parallel checks compliance with the recipe, the product and the desired packaging medium in order to ensure optimal pre-packaging. Urich explains: "Even the best worker can sometimes make an error that leads to a machine stoppage. That's just human. Our new solutions can provide customers with support with their fail-safe approach. Fail-safe refers to the principle whereby a system will not fail in the event of an error, or will cause as little damage as possible.

Cobot replaces flexible fingers

There can also be strategies for digitalization and high levels of automation where operators are often still feeding in raw materials such as pre-made bags. The choice of a cobot is one where "flexible fingers and cognitive abilities" are being replaced, but where it can involve or consciously interact with humans, says Urich. Optima Nonwovens has developed an extremely efficient solution for this application that requires no additional safety systems like scanners or safety sensors. The entire safety technology is embedded in the Cobot and the intelligent application execution. A first system of this type is already in operation, and several other projects are currently underway. "This is where we distinguish ourselves clearly from our market competitors in terms of safety and efficiency," says Urich enthusiastically, adding, "and we can make the best possible use of the tight production space without any restrictions for our customers."

Multi-product systems for pharmaceuticals

Optima Pharma excels with numerous robot-assisted solutions. Again, it is worth weighing up strengths of the robot, such as flexibility, against those of mechatronic systems, especially speed in standard processes. Project Manager Cyrille Zimmermann oversees a project that really stands out – the OPTIMA MultiUse Filler. It combines several different kinds of robotics. The aim was to create a system capable of filling very different high-quality medicines (including highly active ingredients) in three kinds of container and in six different formats. For this purpose, several six-arm robots and an oval conveyor from Optima Pharma were combined, among other things. With an output of 100 objects per minute, the system is more in the lower performance range than what is typical for pharmaceutical applications. Zimmermann emphasizes: "It is not used to produce quantity, but quality, and this is done with maximum flexibility. Robotic solutions are exactly right for this." The machine processes vary depending on the shape of the objects to be processed and the conveyors.

Combination of oval conveyor and robotics

For example, a robot removes what is called Tyvek foil, which protects the sterile containers to be filled in their collection container (tub). It can handle the fine movements required for this effortlessly. What is known as a multi-axis de-nesting robot picks up the empty containers with vacuum suction cups and places them in the conveyor system. Another robot passes the containers on. There are various tools that compensate for the differing distances between the various types of containers. Another robot removes the containers from the oval conveyor belt at the end of the process and places them back in the nest. The result of all this is a lean system layout that can be easily adapted to meet existing space constraints.

Robot Automation
The trend towards fully automated systems is creating new areas of use for robots, such as placing stacks of bags on the bag conveyor. Optima Nonwovens' extremely efficient solution requires no additional security systems like scanners or safety sensors.

The fact that there are so many different types of processes and the variety of products and containers to be filled means that the robot systems are seamlessly integrated into the control architecture. "All we get from the robot manufacturer is the hardware," Zimmermann explains: "It's our software that controls each robot arm. This enables us to reduce the control system to the bare minimum needed and to make extremely fine adjustments to movements.” Centralized programming ensures high efficiency and errorfree operation, and it makes it easier to adapt multi-product systems like these in the future. In the future, the pharmaceutical manufacturer will have just one contact person: the one from Optima.

Oval conveyor and robot arm
Oval conveyor and robot, perfectly adapted to each other, eliminate empty spaces in the magazines for pre-filled syringes.
Robots + Process Knowledge = Perfection + Flexibility

Whatever the special features are that characterize Optima's various areas of robot use, they all have one thing in common. The particular expertise of the division in its areas of use, the in-depth knowledge of the processes and the needs of the users make it possible to create systems that do much more than simply combining robotics and mechatronics. Primarily, it is the control integration of robots, as well as the targeted use of cobots for defined tasks, that offer packaging processes which are unequalled.

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