Unilever looks to cobots to solve packaging issue

Unilever owns more than 400 brands and can be found in 180 countries with up to 2.5 billion people make use of Unilever’s products each day, which means to make it all work, the company requires constant production precision to meet global consumer demands.

The company turned to Universal Robots to take over palletising tasks at its production plant in Katowice, Poland.

As one of four production plants in Poland, the Katowice plant specialises in the packing of tea. In the past, employees would manually pack 25-kg sacks of tea into ready-to-sell cartons.

The challenge
The plant employs around 400 people across two production halls. Darius Ratajczak, automation senior specialist at Unilever says that for a long time, the company had faced challenges in finding and retaining employees to perform monotonous, manual, and strenuous tasks related to palletising and packaging. It had also become harder to find employees who were up for this strenuous job.

“Each year, a decreasing number of people would apply for positions related to palletising. This part of the process is central to our operations and has to be performed efficiently,” said Ratajczak

Unilever looked to an automated solution to combat its challenges but initially struggled to find a flexible robot with the appropriate payload and reach. In addition, it required a robot that could be easily programmed with intuitive handling.

It’s teatime
Taking both the pros and cons into consideration, Unilever opted for collaborative robots (cobots) over palletising robots.

According to Dawid Mroczek, automation specialist at Unilever, the company considered various options but finally decided on the UR10 from Universal Robots.

With a reach of 1300mm and a payload of 10kg, the UR10 met the requirements to pack tea with the help of a vacuum gripper.

“Unilever needed a solution that was easy to deploy, flexible and would deliver a quicker return on investment all whilst improving its productivity,” said Darrell Adams, head of Southeast Asia Oceania for Universal Robots.

Based on the success of implementation, the company deployed six UR10 cobots at its plant in Katowice.

“Six UR10 cobots pack and place ready-to-sell cartons on pallets. In the past, employees spent 70 per cent of their time packaging and 30 per cent palletising, but thanks to the cobots, 30 per cent of their time was freed up to focus on valuable and strategic tasks,” he said.

Intuitive and effective
The UR10 palletises around 1100 boxes during an eight-hour shift at Unilever. Each box is placed on a pallet in a predefined pattern.

The cobots’ programming depends on the shape and size of cardboard packaging. However, in all cases this process is similar. After reaching the specified number of boxes on the pallet, the UR10 starts the next layer.

The pallet usually contains six to ten layers and 10 to 21 boxes in each layer. When the packaging process on one layer is completed, the cobot calculates the new height and marks the starting point for the next one. When the operator notices that the UR10 begins to stack cartons on the next pallet, he departs with the already loaded pallet. It takes around 20 to 30 minutes for a pallet to be completed.

Mroczek said that the on-boarding process of its first cobot took around three weeks but since then, they can be deployed in just a few hours.

“The basic training for our automation team was provided by a distributor of Universal Robots in the region,” he said. “My first experience in robot programming was achieved through the UR Academy website. In our team, we exchange experiences and systematically increase the complexity of the functions used with more advanced scripting programming.

“Programming at the basic level is extremely intuitive. Currently, we use mainly advanced scripting programming, because it allows us to speed up and unify the creation of programs which is achieved by defining ramps and sizes of boxes in the program.”

The most labour-intensive activities at the plant have been eliminated, productivity has increased, and employees have been relieved of strenuous tasks.  Due to this success of this project, Unilever is considering the further implementation of cobots at other plants.

Cobots uptake locally
“Much like Poland, Universal Robots in Australia and New Zealand is too supported by a knowledgeable local team and a well-represented distributor network, and we look forward to rolling out similar projects on our ‘local shores’,” said Adams.

Palletising is just one of the many applications in a factory that can be handled by cobots.  According to Adams, Universal Robots has seen an increase in the demand from local manufacturers for applications which place ergonomic strain on employees and require the performance of repetitive tasks which can lead to injury.

“Often cobots do the jobs that humans don’t want to do – dull, boring and strenuous jobs. Not only are cobots experts at repeating the same movement over and over – they also do it with exact accuracy which leads to higher quality output,” he said.

Cobots free up workers to do more meaningful tasks upstream and downstream in the production line.

“Support is always on-hand. The Universal Robots Academy offers an array of free resources and trainings for users of all levels – from in-class to online training, webinars and video tutorials,” Adams said.

Flexibility and redeployment needed in times of crisis

Whether they are disinfecting and sanitising, conducting COVID-19 tests, helping to manufacture Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) or ramping up respirator production, cobots can work alongside humans safely or on their own. They are the answer to accelerating repetitive tasks in the manufacturing environment while simultaneously addressing concerns around social distancing and the safety of employees.

Industry pioneers, Universal Robots have noted an uptake in the demand for its cobots in various industries across the globe. “Locally”, observes Darrell Adams, Head of Southeast Asia Oceania for Universal Robots, “the pandemic has seen many companies shifting towards robotic technology to help ramp up production.”

“As the fastest growing sector in the robotics industry, cobots are easy to program and deploy remotely. Viewed as a ‘niche’ product in the past, cobots are now the fastest growing segment in the industrial robotics sector. By 2025, cobots are expected to jump from niche status to thoroughly mainstream, accounting for approximately 34 percent of global robot spend” he explains.

Disinfecting with cobots
The pandemic has seen massive increase in demand for effective deep cleaning and disinfection technologies that do not involve direct human contact with potentially infected areas.

In mid-April, researchers at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore unveiled the eXtremeDisinfection roBOT (XDBOT), which comprises a UR5 cobot fitted with an electrostatic spray nozzle all mounted on a mobile platform.

Researchers programmed the cobot to mimic human hand movements so that it can get into hard-to-reach areas such as under beds and tables – a feature that has been missing from traditional disinfection robots that are not as dexterous.

“These cobots are capable of running for four hours straight on a single charge and has been successfully tested in public areas on the NTU campus. The team is now preparing to trial this technology at local public hospitals”.

Adams notes that the UR5 cobot with its built-in safety features can work safely and collaboratively with humans too.

COVID-19 testing with cobots
COVID-19 has also resulted in unprecedented demand for medical testing. In response to this extraordinary demand, Universal Robots co-founder, Esben Østergaard turned his creative energies to the design and development of the world’s first autonomous throat swabbing robot launched by Lifeline Robotics, a company he co-founded with the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute at the University of Southern Denmark (SDU).

This robot uses UR3 cobot arms fitted with a custom 3D-printed end-effector. The process is simplicity itself, beginning with the patient scanning their ID card. Right away, the robot prepares a sample kit, consisting of a container with a printed ID-label and it picks up the swab. Then, using its built-in vision system, the robot identifies the right points to swab in the patient’s throat. As soon as the swab process is complete, the bot places the sample in a jar and screws on the lid. The jar is then sent to a lab for analysis.

“The process takes around seven minutes and the swab takes just 25 seconds,” said Adams.

Meanwhile in Houston, Texas-based portable detection manufacturer, DetectaChem unveiled a unique smartphone-based COVID-19 testing solution in late May. The company’s at-home, low cost COVID-19 test provides results via smart phone in just 15-30 minutes.

Ventilator manufacturing with cobots
Cobots inherent flexibility helps to support the rapid development and deployment of automation, a feature that really comes to the fore in times of crisis. In March, for example, the Spanish car manufacturer SEAT decided to transform one of its assembly lines from its original automotive role to ventilator production. The auto giant installed a UR10e at the end of the line to perform a quality check of the locking mechanism on the unit’s control box.

PPE production with cobots
Based in Ontario, Canada, Hannafin Automation looked to a UR5 cobot to tend the entire 3D printing cycle of face shields. The cobot picked up a Cognex vision camera to inspect the completion of each print. When print is done, the cobot picks it up, places it in a bin, and presses the printer’s touch screen to start a new cycle.

Each printer makes 25 face shields per day and these are donated to local police fire stations, paramedics, and nursing homes.

How cobots can assist locally
Adams notes that as the local economy starts to ramp up again, there is an ongoing call by government for more local manufacturing to take place.  “More and more, the country is looking to local, sustainable and cost-effective manufacturing practices to help reaccelerate the sector.”

“Sometimes overlooked, cobots seek to add value in the business and allows employees to focus on strategic tasks rather than repetitive and mundane tasks. We have seen many companies putting flexi hours into place, here, cobots can assist during the downtime and can work continuously to ensure ongoing productivity.”