Robotics

How collaborative robots can free workers from the dangerous job of palletizing

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Force

During manual palletizing, workers must handle goods manually and use force in activities such as lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling and carrying. Continuous use of force in manual material handling has been shown to be associated with cumulative work-related muscle disorders such as back pain and back injuries, as well as neck and upper extremity injuries. This disorder can have serious consequences for workers and limit their ability to perform activities of daily living. The risks of manual handling are compounded when items are too heavy, too large, difficult to grip, and positioned in a way that requires the torso to bend or twist.

Repetition

Palletizing and de-palletizing involve performing the same actions repeatedly during a work shift. Repetitive tasks place excessive strain and fatigue on the cardiovascular system due to the demands placed on the working muscles, as the muscles may not have sufficient time to recover. Even repetitive handling of light items can pose a risk of upper limb damage if workers need to do it more than once every 5 seconds, according to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.

Attitude

During palletizing and de-palletizing, workers often have to turn around while handling goods and bend forward to reach or place goods on the pallet underlay. Manual handling involving twisting of the torso and forward and side bending means that joints are out of their comfortable, neutral position and near the extreme end of their maximum range of motion and are closely related to musculoskeletal injuries. In addition, manual palletizing workers generally stand between the conveyor and pallets for a long time. Prolonged standing, standing continuously in the same place, has been shown to be associated with various potentially negative health outcomes such as lower back and leg pain, cardiovascular problems, etc.

Irving Paz Chagoya, adds: “Before automating its palletizing, one of the companies we worked for estimated that during an eight-hour shift, each worker lifted 8,000 kg of product, which posed a hazard to the body and posture.”

Automating palletizing can free workers from all associated health risks, reduce boredom and improve overall well-being. This allows workers to protect their health and focus on other tasks that are better suited to their skills, such as quality assurance.

SME Opportunity

While the repetitive and often dangerous nature of palletizing makes it well suited for automation, progress has been gradual.

Previously, automated palletizing was limited to large companies with the floor space and funds to install and operate the large machines previously required to perform the task.

However, this is no longer the case.

The increasing use of cardboard for packing and storing goods, advances in collaborative robotics (cobots) capable of increasing payloads and lowering the cost of automation have opened up the market for collaborative palletizing. As a result, SMEs are now automating palletizing.

For SMEs, automating processes allows them to not only protect and better use their human workforce, but also increase productivity. This allows SMEs to be more competitive against large producers and offers a better working environment for their staff. Sam Bouchard, CEO of Robotiq, a robotics integrator aimed at freeing human hands from repetitive tasks, comments:

“In many of the factories where we deploy palletizing solutions, palletizing tasks are the bottleneck preventing the company’s growth. Increasing palletizing capacity with collaborative robots has allowed the business to produce more, and employ more workers in the upstream production process.

“In addition, having a collaborative robot palletizing cell allows businesses to offer better working conditions to humans caring for robots.”

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