Robot to the Rescue

Robotic palletizing adds flexibility, avoids injuries, and yields floor space savings for this Ohio manufacturer.

DAN Schodowski faced a challenge. As president and CEO of Solon, Ohiobased JTM Products, Inc., Schodowski knew the company was ready to grow, and making the right investment choices would be critical. Should the company buy an existing facility or build a new one? What new material handling equipment would be needed to support its growth?

Perhaps best known as the remaining piece of the original manufacturer of Murphy® Oil Soap (sold to the Colgate- Palmolive Company in 1991), JTM was founded in 1890 as the Phoenix Oil Company and today is privately held by grandsons of the founder, Jeremiah Timothy Murphy. Its product lines are Murphy’sTM tire mounting and demounting lubricants and PhoenixTM pipe joint lubricants used in the construction of water and sewer lines. For Schodowski, JTM’s steady performance of up to $10 million in annual sales and an estimated 65 percent market share gave the company financial stability on which to grow. But in the back of his mind, Schodowski knew that if he were to expand JTM, changes in production techniques would be inevitable for the company, its employees, and its owners.

“We were pretty much pigeonholed into an old building,” he said. “We couldn’t expand. Even within the building, we could not add a lot of machinery or equipment. If we wanted to expand our business, we needed more room.”

The other challenge was to meet the material handling demands of JTM’s product range. While the Murphy’s line primarily is packaged in 25- and 40-pound pails, the Phoenix line primarily is packaged in cases of either quart or gallon containers. Both sets of products need to be palletized before shipment, so factory staffers were left with a lot of slow and heavy lifting.

“When we decided to move, we looked at how we could set up our operations differently,” said Schodowski. “Our layout was fragmented in the old building, and we could not bring in automated palletizers or other automated equipment. We were faced with having to keep adding people to manually load the product on the pallets and truck them somewhere else to have them shrink-wrapped. “When we started laying out the new facility, we knew that we had a lot more room and that we would be able to run both lines at the same time. Running simultaneously in the old plant was a predicament. To do that, we needed extra staff on hand, staff that would be there even if both lines were not running.”

What was needed was a solution that could handle both product lines and allow JTM to allocate more space in a new 70,000-square-foot facility. The answer was an integrated robotic palletizing cell that could palletize both pails and cases.

Flexibility in Motion
Roughly in the center of JTM’s new factory floor, surrounded on one side by the processing and packaging equipment and on the other by pallets of stacked cases and pails, the cell is enclosed in a safety cage. Pails of Murphy’s tire lubricant paste being filled, capped, and conveyed up to the cell chug along in the background. With a whir of motion, the robot rotates to pick up an empty pallet from its pallet-loading station and places it in position at the start of an outfeed pallet conveyor so it can begin palletizing the pails.

In the project’s original design, 10 pallets are pre-loaded onto the pallet-loading station at the start of a sequence and the robot counts its way down. A modification will allow the palletizer to sense how many pallets have been loaded onto the pallet station, letting the operator load any number of pallets at the start of a run up to 10, providing JTM flexibility to do shorter runs and vary sizes without having to manually pull pallets out of the cell.

On the infeed side of the cell, accumulation conveyors take up the pails from the production conveyors and queue them for the robot on instruction from the robot’s control system. Depending on the product size and stacking pattern used in the particular palletizing operation, the robot’s vacuum tool picks up one or three pails at a time by attaching to their tops, then puts them down to form the rows and layers of palletized product. When the pallets are full, they are shrink-wrapped by an automatic shrink-wrapper and taken by forklift to inventory on the shop floor. A similar process occurs for the cases of Phoenix pipe lubricant.

Safety and Ergonomic Benefits
The robotic palletizer has lived up to the expectations of Schodowski and Larry Wilson, JTM’s director of operations. While JTM uses the system at only 65 percent of capacity—with the excess capacity available for continued growth—Wilson estimated the cell now handles 75 percent of JTM’s annual business volume. That volume translates into more than 200,000 pails and 150,000 cases per year, with 75 percent of the pails being the 25-pound size and 75 percent of the cases holding quart containers. In a typical day of palletizing, the cell handles 60 pallets of 25- pound pails, 20 pallets of the 40-pound pails, 40 pallets of the quart cases, or 25 pallets of the gallon cases. The JTM factory employs 20 and currently runs one 7.25-hour shift five days a week with a factory crew of eight but does not palletize every day.

“In the old facility, without the robot, I would have had to add two people to get up to this volume,” Wilson said.

Beyond adding capacity, the decision to install a robot was in large part due to the founding family’s values and to the safety and ergonomic issues surrounding a loyal, but aging, factory crew. The robot has eliminated some of the crew’s most labor-intensive work. “It was the right thing to do,” Wilson said. “The Murphys have a good relationship with everybody who works for them, and there’s a mutual respect between everyone at JTM.

“The ergonomics factored into our decision,” he added. “We have an older workforce. Since we’ve moved here, we’ve retired three people. We had people picking up 1,800 or 1,900 pails a day. That’s a long day.”

“Not everything is based on hard economics, even though we thought there was a pretty good payback on the project,” Schodowski said. “We could be saving someone’s back, which could be a worker’s comp claim somewhere down the road. Those can be very expensive. When you factor in all of those types of costs, you can say the payback is definitely worth it.”

When the robot first arrived, Wilson said, his crew was a bit skeptical and a bit concerned. But those feelings soon turned into appreciation as the crew members realized the benefits. They took it upon themselves one day to reconfigure one of their heavily manual secondary lines so it, too, runs through the robot. “They took the line, reversed all the conveyors, and ran it through the palletizer,” he said. “All they have to do now is pack the boxes, and the robot gets them all stacked.”

The robotic palletizer is rated for a lifespan of up to 20 years and has performed reliably since it was installed.

CHOOSING ROBOTICS FOR AUTOMATED PALLETIZING

Increasing options can blur the decision-making process when choosing between conventional and new technologies. While JTM’s decision to go with a robotic palletizer instead of a conventional palletizer seemed the logical way to go, the decision may not be as clear for other companies in a similar situation.

While high-throughput applications have demanded a traditional high-speed palletizer in the past, today’s high-speed applications can be achieved with either robotic or conventional technology. The lines between the types of solutions tend to blur even further when it comes to pattern flexibility. Both robotic and conventional palletizing solutions can be configured for virtually any pattern. The trick is determining which solution is the best fit to meet the other parameters in an application.

Managers should carefully consider their options when deciding on the type of system they need to automate a palletizing operation. Though not a rigid rule, conventional palletizers are more commonly used for applications requiring higher speeds or involving products with reduced packaging. Reduced packaging is particularly common in today’s highvolume retail environments and is due in part to the high cost of corrugate.

Robotic solutions generally fit lower-speed lines and situations where the palletizer needs to handle multiple lines simultaneously. Because of their typically smaller footprint, robotic solutions also are an option where floor space is at a premium. A variety of factors, including return on investment, require careful consideration when deciding which way to go.

If robotics appears to be the answer, the types of robots and components to be used also will be part of the decision. Most modern robotic palletizers use either gantry robots known as “square” robots or jointed-arm robots known as “round” robots. (They are nicknamed for their pattern of motion.) Gantry robots are linear-motion robots, meaning they move up, down, and across in a work envelope that can be more than 80 feet long. They are typically built to the dimensions of a specific project and offer more overall flexibility, including the capacity to work with a large number of pick-and-place locations. Jointed-arm robots are more constrained in the size of their work envelope but are typically more economical and faster. In a typical palletizing application, a jointed-arm robot can build four pallet loads within its work cell.

Another important decision in a robotics application is which type of end-of-arm tool, or “end-effector,” to use. While vacuum-type end-effectors have many uses, they are sometimes not suited for palletizing operations, particularly for items that are packaged for product display, such as open-top cases and shrinkwrapped trays. In these types of situations, side-clamp or fork-and-clamp tools are a better choice.

Another key is choosing the right partner to build the solution. Core knowledge of palletizing engineering is required to adequately spec this kind of solution, so choose a business partner that has experience with these types of operations.

Whatever the solution—robotic or conventional— a trusted partner who can identify and recommend a solution for a complex production requirement is an invaluable resource, especially when that partner is able to integrate a palletizing system into a company’s wider material handling system and controls.

This article originally appeared in the July 2007 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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