As a concrete application from the packaging industry, Alessandro Rocca, sales engineering director at Cama Group, highlights a growing popularity of multi flavour applications with customers from various food types, be it pet food or ice cream. Robots are ideal for this kind of task.

“Packaging applications have specific challenges, and often robots have to handle a lot of different products, such as biscuits, pet food, ice cream or frozen products. Robots have to know the flavour sequence and prepare everything to load the products into the package.  The systems must be flexible enough to allow for recipe changes. At CAMA, we do not integrate third part robots, both the robots and software are our own design – better results are achieved with robots that are custom-made for packaging.”

He observes a bigger demand for the direct handling of unwrapped products, which requires robots with a gentle touch and even greater hygiene, so robots that are washable become a necessity.

Smart robots that move about the factory floor

Mr. Collet identifies mobile robots as a key growth area for the future.

“Robotics mobility is a logical step further into even more flexible and performant production. Therefore we launched our HelMo series of industrial mobile robots, which can autonomously move within the production premises and undertake different tasks defined by the company ERP.”

The HelMo mobile robot systems also help to link the production processes together reaching a higher production quality with lowering the number of parts in stock. For instance, HelMo can load a machine with raw parts and unload it, bring the manufactured parts to be cleaned and get them controlled by a measurement station before getting them packaged and ready to be shipped.

Industry 4.0 and machine learning has expanded what robots are capable of doing in production.

Robots are becoming more and more crucial for production, as Mr Collet explains.

“Thanks to their controller’s open architecture and high connectivity, robots can directly be linked to ERP systems to fully support all the production batch changes with the highest traceability. They are also able to gather data and detect patterns, modelling them to get more predictive scenarios in order to prevent production downtime and secure the investment with dedicated preventive maintenance actions.”

Robots, not just in the packaging industry, are getting smaller, lighter, more energy efficient and will be more flexible and adaptable to different use-cases, as Mr. Bösl observes.

“There will still be ‘traditional’ industrial robots – big, fast, accurate but also potentially harmful to humans if not behind a safety-fence. But modern robotic solutions will become increasingly easy to use, easy to set up and operate; collaborative robotics is on the rise and will also find its place in packaging and – especially – commissioning. Humans and robots working side by side, e.g. in warehouses, will be a common sight.”

When harnessing the power of IT and connectivity, robot behaviour can be simulated before they actually end up in the factory. Mr. Rocca explains.

“We can provide our customers with machine simulation so that they can see in advance what will happen in the field. Furthermore, augmented reality and digital twin technology give a real view of the machine remotely, great for servicing and real time interaction.”

Innovation with bionics

Mr. Bösl underlines the importance of learning from evolution.

“Bionics is a great way to learn from nature. Evolution has put millions of years of trial and error into finding the perfect solution for particular problems. By analysing and understanding these solutions, we can find inspiration for some of the hardest problems in engineering. Unfortunately, that does not mean that we can ‘simply’ copy nature. Replicating an Elephant and putting such a ‘Robophant’ into a manufacturing plant does not make sense. Understanding the particular advantages of the Elephant’s trunk, though, could lead to completely new kinematics for flexible, adaptable, lightweight robotic ‘arms’ with many degrees of freedom – like Festo’s Bionic Softarm.”

He predicts that robotics will continue to disrupt.

“This ‘robotic revolution’ has already begun in structured environments, i.e. manufacturing and production. Applying artificial intelligence and machine learning, robots will get ‘smarter’ and more perceptive. New user interaction paradigms, like speech control or teaching by demonstration, will make adoption easier. We will experience the same democratisation in robotics over the next half a century that has already happened in computer technology. Robots will become commodity and can be used by anyone. Festo will focus on developing robotic solutions that help, enable and augment human capabilities but will not replace them.”

Finishing on that note, maybe I will see R2-D2 robots on the streets in my lifetime after all!