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Automation options in materials handling

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INCREASED plant capacity remains a driving force for most manufacturing organisations. As new technologies are introduced, the full automation of back-end warehousing continues to accelerate.

Over the last five years the introduction of LGVs (Laser Guided Vehicles) has redefined automation in warehousing facilities. Coupled with automated production lines, manufacturing can take place with very limited human intervention, from picking raw materials right through to palletising and wrapping of shipper cartons, to dispatch through automated warehouses.

Following palletisation and stretch-wrapping, completed pallets can be automatically stacked, ready to be fed into trucks via conveyer.

Human intervention can be limited to monitoring systems using remote HMIs and cameras. No personnel need be actively involved in any of the manual processes that were typical of previous decades.

New laser guided technology replaces older systems that relied on fixed tapes or wires to guide vehicles along set routes. Older systems had limited intelligence built in for decision making.

The new systems use laser reflection technology placed around the walls which enables the LGV to track its location by measuring distances from the laser. Coupled with intelligent programming that caters for all scenarios, LGVs are able to operate independently.

LGVs also meet safety aspects. They can be programmed to work in close to the robots and automation lines, yet be intelligent enough to recognise when a human moves within a pre-defined radius. This would cause the LGV and/or robot to stop immediately, with a system reset required to continue production.

Radio communication and vision systems also enable LGVs to know if there are any other hold-ups in the lines such as a supply belt that has stopped, or a truck picking up complete pallets is inoperative.

At the end of the shift the LGV automatically moves back to its charging station, where contact plates come in contact with floor units enabling automatic battery charging.

Every manufacturing facility is different. The product may be warehoused on site, moved by road to a different location or to rail, or shipped directly to distributors or retailers. LGVs are able to cope with all scenarios.

Shipping via large trucks - Large, specially-built trucks with internal conveyer belts back into the manufacturing facility’s door to collect goods. Automatic levelling devices lift up the back of the track until it is level with the shop floor. Pallets are then moved along a conveyer and into the back of the truck seamlessly.

As a large truck can pick up and ship multiple pallets of product, the manufacturing and packing/palletising line will typically run three shifts while the truck only runs one shift to meet demand.

During the second and third shifts the product will be automatically stacked in a storage bay, ready to be moved onto the trucks during the first shift.

Palletising - Purpose built palletising robots with payload capacities of around 150kg have been available for almost a decade. These machines are targeted at low to medium rate production lines where the robot may pick and place one to six cartons per cycle. In the last few years the payloads and reach of the robots has increased to allow a single robot to service five lines simultaneously.

With the automotive sector demanding larger payload robots the consumer industry is benefiting with these new designs. Robots with payloads exceeding 550kg are now being used on high rate production lines where previously dedicated systems dominated. These high payload robots allow entire layers of product to be palletised each cycle.

Fully automated picking and packing solutions are suited to various industries in Australia for example, local food and beverage manufacturing tends to produce short runs with various product and shipper sizes. With the new laser guided vehicles and the ability for robots to have self changing grippers, automation is continuing to grow exponentially.

In pulp and paper manufacture, heavy weights and resulting product damage has been an issue for many years. LGVs provide safe and flexible solutions where previously high levels of manpower was required.

Hazardous products present a big risk to the individual. By removing personnel from handling dangerous materials, great savings can be made on compensation and time lost due to absences.

In clean rooms, LGVs also help because the less personnel involved in handling food products, the higher the quality assurance. Consequently fully automated systems with total washdown capabilities are playing an increasing role in these environments.

* Jeff Fordham, one of Australias leading industrial robotics specialists, is currently with Machinery Automation & Robotics 02 9748 7001.

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