Robot bottler packs a punch

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Sydney-based Power Plastics increased its output by 30 to 40% after it commissioned a packing robot from ABB.

Prior to the decision to invest in a robot, workers had to manually hand-pack 3000 polyethylene condiment bottles per hour, which resulted in high labour costs and compromised on health and safety. The company was packing 60,000 bottles in a day, in 250ml and 500ml sizes, and in five different colours.

Skyrocketing raw materials prices, operational costs and workers’ compensation claims from repetitive strain injury prompted Power Plastics to talk to ABB about whether a robot would be a better option for doing the job.

Sydney-based systems integrator Apex Automation and Robotics assessed the situation and found the client required a high degree of flexibility and the ability to handle diverse products. The company then built a robotic cell based around the six-axis IRB 4400L robot, with a 2.43m reach and 30kg payload. Two extrusion blow moulding machines and accumulation conveyors feed the bottles to the robot and the unit in turn picks up upward to 10 of the bottles at a time using an Apex-designed vacuum cup gripper.

The gripper picks up a row of bottles, spaces them, and places them upright on a stainless steel platen. It then rotates 180 degrees and repeats the process with a new row of bottles, placing them upside down between each bottle in the first row.

When the platen is full, the robot signals the operator who inspects the bottles, slips a plastic bag over them, seals, and takes it to a pallet. While this is happening, the robot turns to the opposite zone to start working on another platen. The client chose not to automate the entire line because it wanted an element of human inspection and quality assurance within the process.

However, the robot has allowed the company to reassign five workers and two shifts to other tasks. On weekends, when the plastic fabricator runs on a skeleton crew, the output has been improved by between 30 and 40%.