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Flexible Manufacturing

Automation and the human touch

Published on 2021-10-27 15:20:53 UTC in Flexible Manufacturing

Ensuring products are sorted correctly and placed in the correct orientations are critical functions when preparing food and other consumer goods to be packaged and ready for consumption. Imagine if a multipack of peppers had 3 green ones; or if a pack of pancakes had 2 missing because they were outside of the range of the flow-wrapper. Doubtless, we wouldn’t be too happy. Even worse, we can’t get hold of the products we want because there is a large scale shortage…
These things can, and do, happen but can be easily avoided.

The human touch

In order to package many mass produced products, the packaging format dictates that in some cases, the product needs to be sorted into the correct order as it comes down a conveyor and in most cases, needs to be a certain orientation to align with the outer edges of the packaging medium. In many cases, these outcomes are achieved using people simply picking the product up and placing it in the correct place. Sounds simple, right?
If only it was.  Whilst we humans can do many things machines cannot, we do have our limitations.  Here we will outline three major risks manufacturers face when they are reliant on humans to fulfill their sortation and alignment process requirements.

1. Risk of exposure to pathogens

If we have learned anything over the last 18 months, it is that viruses spread like wildfire in manufacturing facilities. In order to achieve the required throughput, a manually operated sortation and alignment process will need to have many workers in close proximity to each other.

In the age of social distancing, this is simply not feasible any more.  Indeed, in 2020, 5.8 days, on average, were lost to manual worker sickness, and the larger the company, the bigger the impact – a staggering 10.6 days were lost on average in companies with more than 1000+ employees.
The knock-on effect of this is obvious.  Reduced staff means reduced output hitting profitability and efficiency metrics and potentially jeopardising future site investment.

2. Risk of repetitive tasks over a sustained time period

This is exactly the same in a packaging line.  It is easy to place peppers in a red, yellow, green order consistently for 5 minutes.  Doing it consistently over an 8 hour shift is a completely different story.  Consider the last time you did something repetitive.  How did your eyes feel after a while?  Where did your mind shift to?
These are natural human responses but have consequences in the production world.  A loss of concentration can create a pack with 3 green peppers.  This can create recalls, chargebacks and worse still, brand damage.  Humans (and thus consumers) are hard wired to feel the pain of a bad experience much more acutely than the joy of a good one so the discerning consumer might think twice about that brand of product in the future.

3. Risk of bored workers

Let’s be honest, doing the same thing over and over again for 8 hour is pretty boring. In fact, in English we have a phrase for it – donkey work. Hardly appealing.

So it is little wonder that when workers are offered the prospect of earning 10p more an hour to do roughly the same job, they move on in a heartbeat.  This can, however, spell catastrophe for manufacturers.  The costs of onboarding new employees is already extremely high and must be minimised.  However, every time an employee goes through the process and moves on, it is a wasted investment.

So, what to do?

Fortunately, there are solutions to these problems, and many of them are low risk and straight forward to implement.  The real key to turning these sortation and alignment challenges into business opportunities, however, lies within automation.  By automating repetitive processes, people are freed up to do exciting jobs, with the necessary variation to keep stimulation high and with a relative degree of autonomy.
Omron has extensive experiencing in sorting and aligning products using our vision guided delta robot solutions, massively increasing throughput and enabling manufacturers to give their workers opportunities to develop their skills.

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