Smart Flexible Depalletizing Comes of Age

Smart Flexible Depalletizing Comes of Age

Smart Flexible Depalletizing Comes of Age

While most distribution centers (DCs) still use manual labor to break down pallet loads, it’s a physically demanding job that’s difficult to staff. What’s more, manual lifting and handling tasks like these are among the leading causes of injury in DCs.

Fully automated solutions to these challenges have been elusive for many years. But recently depalletizing robots have become significantly smarter and more flexible, with the ability to transition seamlessly from mixed-SKU to single-SKU pallets in any sequence — without requiring additional programming or operator intervention.

Advances in three key technologies are making robotic palletizers a practical reality today.

The Vision

The core of smart flexible depalletizing solutions is an articulated robotic arm, guided by advanced vision and perception technologies that make it possible for a robot to pick cases from single-SKU or mixed-SKU pallets onto a fixed or mobile location. Computer vision identifies the precise location of every item on the pallet, while perception software automatically recognizes the wide variety of packaging and adapts the logic and grip (see below). The system also notes any potential orientation challenges, such as packages that aren’t level on the pallet and picks them accordingly. This technology enables a robotic depalletizer to seamlessly handle a continuous flow of mixed-SKU or single-SKU pallets — in any sequence — without requiring pre-programming or operator intervention.

The Logic

Smart robotic depalletizing solutions use advanced machine learning (ML) capable of accommodating the unique challenges of the task at hand. Motion planning optimizes the movements of the robotic arm to ensure maximum picking speed and efficiency. The control logic is dynamic, automatically responding to the size, shape, packaging type and weight of the items being handled for optimized performance. The robot also accounts for obstacles in the work area, the shortest distance from pick to place and many other factors — enabling it to adapt to changes in the work environment or the types of packaging it handles.

Getting a Grip

Gripping technology on the robot’s end-of-arm (EOA) tooling enables robotic depalletizers to work faster with less product damage compared to manual crews. The robot is capable of handling loads of up to 80 pounds, from as large as a microwave oven down to the size of a small tissue box. When the perception software identifies an item that isn’t lying flat on the pallet, the gripper automatically compensates by adjusting to the correct angle. In this way, it makes the best use of the capabilities and advantages of the tooling used for the job while enabling the robotic picking of challenging items and diverse stacking configurations.

Benefits of a Fully Automated Solution

Smart flexible robotic depalletizing alleviates many of the most common concerns associated with manual handling operations, offering significant advantages to workers and operators.

Operational Flexibility

Smart flexible robotic palletizers can process single- and mixed-SKU pallets in any sequence or pattern without human supervision. This enables the palletizing cell to work continuously without interruption. Best of all, no pre-programming is required for the solution to function.

Faster Throughput at Lower Operational Costs

The most obvious advantage of a robotic depalletizing solution is consistent, predictable throughput. While an individual operator’s rate can range from 150 to 600 cartons per hour (CPH), this rate can degrade throughout a shift, depending on the length and frequency of breaks, distractions, lack of supervision or poor ergonomics. Standard operation can also be disrupted by worker absenteeism, employee turnover or labor shortages.

A robot cell works in the same CPH range but can achieve higher depalletizing rates by operating consistently without interruption over multiple shifts. Depending on the configuration, the system is capable of operating with little or no human oversight. By reducing labor dependency in this way, the solution helps to control labor costs without sacrificing productivity.

Reliable depalletizing rates are of growing importance as consumer preferences continue to accelerate the frequency of packaging changes and the increasing SKU mix DCs handle every day. Since depalletizing is one of the most common bottlenecks, the throughput advantages of a robotic solution can generate return on investment (ROI) very quickly by enabling your DC to keep up with its daily order volume.

Overcoming Manual Handling Challenges

Smart flexible depalletizing cells can deliver immediate benefits by eliminating many drawbacks of manual handling. For example, they significantly mitigate potential operational risks that can be caused by labor scarcity. Freeing workers from back-breaking labor not only reduces employee injuries, it enables them to be shifted to higher-value jobs.

Automation also simplifies management’s tasks by delivering reliable results and improving expense visibility. Teams can be scheduled with far greater accuracy, eliminating common worker frustrations that can impact employee retention.

Easy Deployment and Operation

Smart flexible depalletizing solutions are simple and intuitive systems that can be deployed quickly without making major changes to your operation. Their modular designs enable a variety of flexible configurations, any of which can be operated with a simple and intuitive user interface (UI).

For more details about these configurations, and how robotic depalletizing cells can integrate seamlessly into your existing workflows, download our newly released report: Overcome Manual Depalletizing Challenges Without Sacrificing Productivity. It highlights the significant benefits smart flexible depalletizing solutions have to offer modern DCs and examines the increasingly attractive business case for their implementation.

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