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PackExpo 2021 returned as a live event this year in Las Vegas, and judging from the participation by exhibitors, and attendance by the industry, the event was a huge success. Official numbers from the PackExpo website listed the number of exhibitors at 1,500+ and the number of registrants at 23,000+.
According to the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, packaging machinery shipments could reach $12.8 billion in 2026, growing at a CAGR of 5.2 percent. The growth is accelerated in part by e-commerce.
I attended the first two days of this year’s event, and I was impressed by the actual number of folks who showed up for the show. But this event is so huge and covers so much square footage that it felt like I had run a marathon at the end of those two days.
Palletizing and packoff are key applications
The automation stars of this show were robotic palletizers and conveyor picking/packoff robots. Delta style robots have evolved to be the mechanism of choice for conveyor picking applications, and there were a number of delta robots on display.
For palletizing, there are many solutions to choose from. This includes both industrial and collaborative robotic manipulators.
Industrial robots vs collaborative robots safety
When industrial robots are deployed into palletizing applications, there are now a number of safety certified “safety zone” management solutions on the market. This enables the higher speeds and payloads of industrial robots while allowing the actual robots to remain unguarded. Compare this to the constraints in speed and payload of a collaborative palletizing solution.
The safety zone management solutions detect a human entering the space around the robot and slow or stop the robot motion so that the robot doesn’t injure the human.
The one vendor (at the show) with a universal safety solution is Veo Robotics. I had the opportunity to talk to CEO and co-founder Patrick Sobalvarro at the show about the solution. The solution is fully safety certified and includes a completely redundant safety processor that double checks on the state of the system process in real-time. There’s no other solution currently on the market with Veo’s level of safety design. The downside to Veo is that the Veo safety controller is larger than any robot controller currently on the market.
And the award goes to…
Over a dozen new robotic automation products debuted at the show. My pick for the most innovative product debut goes to the Robotiq Palletizing Solution. This solution wraps a complete palletizing solution around a UR10 robot. It mounts the UR 10 on a vertical linear axis that is integrated kinematically within the UR software. It is a $90K (USD) solution that provides palletizing for high-mix, low-volume applications and is a great solution for small manufacturers.
Pack to the future
PMMI debuted a new historical packaging machinery exhibit for the first time at PackExpo 2021. This exhibit included several dozen permanent displays highlighting the evolution and innovation in packaging automation over the last two centuries.
Each year, PMMI will bring the “Pack to the future” exhibit to the PackExpo event, and will continue to grow the exhibit as it acquires new “old” equipment worthy of display.
Let’s take a look at all of the various new products that were announced or launched at the show.
ABB had a variety of demos of their articulated robots performing pick and place and palletizing operations. However, the star of the show for ABB was the new ABB IRB 390 Flexpacker Delta robot. The IRB 390 Flexpacker is an IP69, full washdown robot. The robot was on display in the Fallas Automation booth (an ABB integrator). The IRB 390 comes in two configurations: a 4 axis / 15 kg payload; a 5 axis / 10 kg payload.
Korea-based CMES Robotics demonstrated random item depalletization using 3D vision to identify box locations on the pallet. The solution can work with any articulated robot to depalletize items onto a conveyor. The company also demonstrated a “void filling” vision application that takes a picture of a filled order box and then determines how much filler product to dispense to accurately “fill the box void” without waste. This was the first time that the company has demonstrated its solution in North America.
Festo makes a complete line of gripper and gripping accessories. While grippers may be mundane, Festo still finds new ways to innovate and improve gripping technology. This year, Festo showed two new technologies:
- New compliant gripper
- The compliant gripper technology uses a finger pad filled with beads to offer passive compliance as the gripper closes on an item. Then, by pulling a vacuum on the finger pad, the beads are locked into their pattern and can hold a tight, custom fit.
- New multi item vacuum gripper
- Also on display was a new “multi-item” vacuum gripper designed for robotic e-commerce bin picking applications. The vacuum cup is designed to pick up all of the various packaging materials for e-commerce fulfillment. This includes thin plastic bags, corrugated cardboard, and bubble packs.
Kawasaki Robotics showed both a palletizing demo and a delta robot packaging demo in their booth. For all of the major robotics manufacturers in attendance, there was an unwritten rule that you needed to show off either palletizing and/or pack off with your robots. Kawasaki also displayed their new “fast, compact” robots for the first time.
Here are some of the specs of the new robots:
- 7 kg payload
- Horizontal reach: 730 mm / 930 mm
- Vertical reach: 1,356 mm / 1,726 mm
- 13 kg payload
- Horizontal reach: 1,460 mm
- Vertical reach: 1,965 mm
Kuka Robotics launched the new, small form factor, KRC5 micro controller at the show. This new robot controller will be the controls for all of the smaller robots coming from Kuka in the future. Kuka also launched their new KR3 delta robot, a stainless steel, IP69, 4 axis packaging solution.
Kuka also introduced their newest tabletop SCARA robot, the KR6. The new KR6 provides a 6-kg payload and positions at a repeatability of +/- .02 mm. It offers reach/radius options of 500 and 700 mm, and Z-axis stroke of 200 mm.
Of course, because this was a packaging show, Kuka also demonstrated the CUBE Palletizing Cell from FOCUS Integration. CUBE features a KUKA KRC4 controller technology and flexible KR IONTEC robot.
Lastly, Kuka had a stationary KMP1500 mobile robot on display in the booth. This 1500 kg payload capacity, “tunneling” AMR uses omni move (mecanum) wheels and is designed for lineside replenishment and FGI movement.
Another company making its US debut is Japanese robot company Mujin Robotics. You can read our recent news story about the Mujin product launch.
At PackExpo, Mujin had one of the largest booths of any of the robotics companies in attendance, and they demonstrated their model-driven palletizing/depalletizing solution. Mujin was also one of the few companies to have a moving, mobile robot within their booth. The mobile robot was picking up and moving pallets from the palletizing robot workcell. I got a tour of the booth and an introduction to Mujin solutions from CEO Ross Diankov.
OSARO demonstrated its first robotics solution for automated bagging. The system can use any articulated, 6-axis robot to pick an item from a bin and place it into a bagger. This solves the multi-SKU poly bagging process for e-commerce operations, and OSARO is looking to deploy the solution soon at several fulfillment providers.
OSARO’s drop-in replacement for manual bagging stations can package individual items at a rate of 350 pieces per hour, with less overhead and superior ROI.
OSARO’s solution reads the product’s barcode and generates an appropriate shipping label. The system is designed for general e-commerce order fulfillment or specialized distribution like cosmetics, pharmacy, or manufactured parts.
Omron had a number of demos in its booth including a mini-factory. The mini-factory included a next-generation mobile manipulator (MoMa) collaborative robot mounted to the LD-250 mobile robot, a pick and place robot, a SCARA robot, an AI-powered vision inspection system, a palletizer cobot, and other artificial intelligence and machine learning functionality.
In the mini-factory, the hybrid robot was configured with an Omron TM14M robot manipulator arm mounted on an LD-250 autonomous mobile robot.
The Omron i4L SCARA robot arm, in conjunction with Omron’s ACE programming software that contains built-in vision, handled both primary and secondary packaging.
The Omron i4L SCARA robot arm is capable of lifting 5-kilogram loads, including a wide range of parts, packages, or pouches of nearly any shape even in unstructured environments. A high degree of repeatability and fast cycle times expedite parts handling while allowing operators to focus on more critical tasks.
On display publicly for the first time was the new Omron i4L series, tabletop SCARA robots. These robots feature the robot controller in the base of the robot and are programmed with Omron’s “Automation Control Environment” software package (ACE). The i4L robots are available in 350mm, 450mm and 550mm reach versions.
Omron also had a Delta robot demo, but it wasn’t the latest Omron Sysmac delta robot.
As mentioned already in the introduction, Robotiq demonstrated its new Palletizing Solution, featuring a UR10 collaborative robot. The solution includes everything to set up a palletizing station that picks from one or two infeed locations and can fill two complete pallets. The solution is easy to program, as you only need to teach the pick locations and one corner of each pallet. The system is programmed entirely from the UR pendant.
Rockwell has entered into a new relationship with Comau robots. All of the Comau robots can now be programmed within the Rockwell Automation Studio 5000 software. Rockwell has an existing relationship with Denso robots as well.
Users can completely build out a digital twin of the workcell or production line in Emulate3D. All of the components can be imported in as CAD files to ease the layout task. Within Emulate3D, an entire line can be animated to view the assembly process.
Universal Robots is very adept at sizing their booth and product demonstrations to the needs and expectations for the show. At PackExpo 2021, UR featured solution demonstrations from two of their UR+ partners. In the booth was the aforementioned Robotiq Palletizer demo (the sister demo was featured in the Robotiq booth).
UR also had a live demo of the new collaborative box erector, box EZ, from Flex-Line Automation, Inc. By using a collaborative robot, Flex-Line has reduced the footprint of traditional box erectors, while allowing staff to work safely alongside the unit without excessive guarding. It can erect a variety of box sizes with one redeployable unit.
Vecna Robotics was at the PackExpo for the first time. Vecna was the only “pure play” mobile robotics company at this show. The only other mobile robot products on the floor were the OMRON LD250 and the Kuka KMP1500. While Vecna didn’t have a moving robot, they did bring an autonomous pallet loader for their booth. Vecna’s new CEO, Craig Malloy, was in attendance for his first trade show since taking the helm in July 2021.
Veo Robotics has one of the most unique safety solutions on the market. They have been an early innovator in what is described as “3D safeguarding”. This enables human-robot collaboration without guarding, and it has taken the company five plus years to perfect the solution and receive the safety certifications necessary to support their vision.
With the Veo FreeMove solution, a number of FreeMove sensors are deployed over the work envelope of an industrial robot. Using time-of-flight lasers and cameras, the system is able to actively detect humans encroaching in a robot’s work area. The solution uses a completely redundant safety processor that double checks on the state of the system processes continually.
The result is a safety supervisor that watches the workspace around the robot, and can slow or stop the robot motion when it detects a human entering the workspace.
The system can learn about the things that belong in the workspace, like the moving robot arm, boxes, conveyors and even autonomous mobile robots. BUT, if a human enters the robot workspace, even if they crawl along the floor OR enter the workspace and try to hide under a table, the system will detect them. Anything entering the work area will trip a safety violation.
VEO meets all relevant safety certifications, and helps clients to complete the risk assessment during the deployment of the solution.
Wyzo Robotics is a Swiss company, and it launched both the company and their unique collaborative delta robot into the US at PackExpo.
The new collaborative Wyzo Sidebot delta robot is the first of its kind. You read that correctly, it’s a collaborative delta-style robot, able to be moved around your facility where it’s needed, and operate safely around other human workers without the need for guarding.
The Sidebot is made from carbon fiber and it is also the first robot (anywhere) to employ the novel Genesis direct drive motor.
The company is currently building out its North American sales channel and is recruiting new distributors and integrators in the US.
Yaskawa had a number of solution demos in their booth, including their impressive safety zoned palletizing demo.