Many tasks that seem simple to humans have eluded robots. Grabbing six-packs was one of them, but Piab Vakuum GmbH has developed a system that it claimed can do so without damage.
After discussions with customers in plant engineering and the beverage industry, Piab’s experts learned that a gripper for the simple automatic handling of six-packs with cardboard packaging was needed. The customers said they needed robotic handling of beer and beer-based mixed drinks that must be packaged and palletized.
Piab AB develops automation for machine producers and end users in e-commerce logistics, food and beverage, pharmaceuticals, automotive, and other manufacturing in more than 70 countries. The Sweden-based gripper and motion company, which has offices in Hingham, Mass., has more than 700 employees and reported SEK 1.2 billion ($140 million U.S.) in sales 2018
Piab designs suction cups for delicate six-packs
Automating handling of six-packs has been difficult because most mechanical grippers cannot pick up the bottles from the top of the bottle caps, according to Piab. These caps are usually sealed with a banderole made of aluminum or paper, which would be damaged.
At the same time, the cardboard is very thin and unstable and must be handled with care, said the company. The gripper should also not leave any marks on the cardboard box to avoid an impression of the packaging being damaged.
The vacuum specialists at Piab, led by Bernd Gries, manager of global S-accounts, developed a special gripper with rectangular suction cups. The rectangular suction cups pick up the six-pack in only three places.
In order to prevent the cardboard from being pulled in due to the large suction surface and leaving marks, the Piab team developed a corresponding load support as part of the suction cups. This prevents the cardboard from being drawn in and getting damaged.
The gripper is manufactured using a 3D-printing process and can therefore be easily adapted to different six-pack sizes, said Piab. The fastest way to do this is via the exchangeable cheeks, which serve to stabilize the six-pack in the gripper during handling.
COAX ejectors provide safety
In addition to Piab’s rectangular suction cups, the gripper contains COAX vacuum ejectors. One COAX ejector is integrated de-centrally for each square suction cup, explained the company. This provides additional safety when handling, because each ejector works independently of the others.
If one ejector fails due to contamination, the six-pack will continue to be held reliably by the other two. The gripper has an automatic blow-off pulse so that six-packs can be put down quickly. This cleans the ejector, channels, and the suction cup at the same time, said Piab.
The company added that the gripper offers query options for vacuum process data for customers who have Industry 4.0 interfaces.