AT Power Plastics in Sydney, hand-packing 3,000 polyethylene condiment bottles an hour was taking a high toll in labour costs and operator health and safety – in a highly competitive market.
Six months after giving the job to an ABB robot, two-thirds of the line’s staff had other jobs, efficiency was on target and weekend output from the line was up 30 to 40 per cent.
“We began in 1997 with four old blow molding machines and six employees,” said Power Plastics’ managing director Russell Barber.
When Power Plastics considered a robotic solution for its labour intensive squeezable condiment bottle operation, the company originally talked to ABB because, “we wanted the best robot we could get,” said Barber.
Skyrocketing raw materials prices influenced the decision, but the operational and human costs of hand-packing 60,000 bottles a day, in 250 ml and 500 ml sizes and five different colours, were the key drivers.
“The final crunch was we had a bad year with workers’ compensation claims from RSI (repetitive strain injury). The best way to make sure we didn’t have any RSI was to get a robot,” he said.
Sydney-based systems integrator, Apex Automation and Robotics, had already built a non-robotic automation solution for Power Plastics.
When Apex’s general manager, Dany Seif, first looked at the condiment bottle line, he found “two operators on each shift filling plastic-lined cardboard boxes with the bottles, sealing them placing them on pallets”.
“Power Plastics required a high degree of flexibility and ability to handle product diversity. Our challenge was to generate a concept using the most suitable technology for the application,” he said.
“ABB have a wide range of robots, user-friendly software and keep our finger on the pulse of their latest developments.
The robotic cell built for Power Plastics is based around one 6-axis IRB 4400L robot, with a 2.43-metre reach and 30-kilogram payload.
Bottles are fed from two extrusion blow moulding machines (EBMs), along accumulation conveyors, from which the robot picks them – 8, 9 or 10 at a time, depending on bottle size – using an Apex designed and built robot head – or gripper.
The gripper uses vacuum cups to pick up a row of bottles, space them and place them upright on a stainless steel platen. In the next cycle, the gripper rotates 180 degrees, spaces and places the bottles up-side down between each bottle in the first row.
When the platen is full, the cell signals the operator, who inspects the bottles, slips a plastic bag over them, seals it and takes it to a pallet.
The robot sits between two in-feed conveyors, which supply two identical packing zones 180 degrees apart. When the operator is bagging one platen of bottles, the robot works in the opposite zone.
“Apex said they could automate the whole line,” said Barber, “but I was concerned about going from essentially 100 per cent inspection to zero inspection.
“After six months of moulding millions of bottles, our quality has not been diminished one bit.
“The line started with six employees over three shifts. Now we’re down to one per shift, but that person also works on something else, while running both SBMs.”
The line runs 24 hours a day, so measuring any improvement in output was difficult, said Barber.
“But, on weekends – when we always operated with a skeleton crew – output is up between 30 and 40 per cent,” he said.
“We provided the whole turnkey robotic cell from scratch,” said Apex’s project manager Angelo Di Lorenzo.
“The ABB component is the robot and its controller, an ABB model IRC 5 unit,” he said.
Russell Barber said no jobs had been lost, and the move has been positive in terms of Return on Investment (ROI).
For more information contact:
P – 03 8544 0035
W – www.abb.com