Putting the stopper on the bottle: at the heart of P & G’s robotic ambitions

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CINCINNATI / TABLERS STATION, WV, July 19 (Reuters) – Procter & Gamble Co (PG.N) may be best known for their laundry detergent and toothpaste, but their secret sauce is arguably figuring out how to do things like getting two red bottles of Olay Skin Lotion in blister packs as inexpensively and as accurately as you can.

This task is currently carried out by hand in its factories.

But in one of the conglomerate’s secret robotics labs on the outskirts of Cincinnati, researchers have programmed a robot to do the job.

It is a surprisingly delicate maneuver for a machine. The robot arm picks up two bottles at a time from a box and places them in the dimples with the labels facing forward so they are visible when the package is sealed.

“That’s the key – exactly orienting the labels,” said Mark Lewandowski, director of robotics innovation at P&G Global Engineering Center, pointing to the test line he has installed inside the machine. ‘installation. “We’re going to roll this out in a month or two” at P&G factories, he said.

Many companies manufacture consumer goods. Yet those who can make them the most eye-catching for consumers, and do it for the cheapest possible, are the most successful.

In this regard, P&G is a role model and its use of high-speed automation and robots is key to its success. P&G is the world’s largest consumer goods manufacturer and dominates many of its businesses. For example, analysts estimate that its Bounty brand accounts for 40% of all paper towels sold in the United States. Investors appreciate its consistent earnings and dividends. The company has increased its dividend for 65 years in a row.

Granted, P&G is best known as an expert in branding, not as a designer of factory machinery. But developing key pieces of its own automation has helped it compete in companies where it’s critical to cut the cost of manufacturing every Pampers diaper and Gillette razor blade by a few fractions.

And the pressure to cut costs is greater than ever. Like other manufacturers, P&G pushes for price increases to offset increases in raw materials and shipping costs.

“In commodity companies like P & G’s, price is everything,” said David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies the impact of automation. “For this type of business, you need scalability and efficiency,” which means staying on the cutting edge of production technology.

PUT IT IN A BOX

Lewandowski’s lab, tucked away in a nondescript brick building surrounded by suburban malls, is working on robots that could end up in a factory in one of P & G’s six main business units. The robot that handles Olay bottles, for example, was developed as part of a larger challenge of creating machines and grippers capable of handling bottles and tubes of many shapes and sizes and inserting them into containers. increasingly complex packaging.

“Everyone’s talking about the Amazon challenge – the gripping and the picking,” Lewandowski said, referring to the online retail giant. But for P&G, it’s not enough to put a bottle in a box.

Consumer product designers are constantly imagining new shapes and sizes of containers, sometimes adding features such as spouts or clip-on lids, to help products stand out on grocery store shelves. This can mean costly adjustments to machines every time a line switches to a new product.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the development of some new automated systems. At many P&G factories, Lewandowski noted, groups of hourly workers come together – often side by side – to assemble special assortments or cardboard displays that showcase products at the end of grocery store aisles.

“People are always the ultimate machine” for this job, he said. But over the past year, he’s found ways to automate more of it, in part to promote social distancing. This push to automate this manual labor is expected to continue beyond the pandemic, he noted, as P&G factories struggle to find workers willing to do this work in tight labor markets.

NOT FOR ALL JOBS

In addition to the Lewandowski lab, P&G operates a network of separate research centers that focus on automation issues specific to each company.

A few kilometers away, for example, is a research center dedicated to the textile and home maintenance trades. This lab, with a huge vintage publicity photo of a woman hanging laundry on a clothesline in the hallway, has been around for three decades. But it’s only in the last five years that he’s created a section that focuses on pure robotics rather than more generic automated machines.

Roger Williams, the laboratory’s technical director, estimates that only 20% of automation at P&G factories involves real robots, which are slower than “stationary automation”, such as machines that inject detergent into a bottle. or that attach plugs. But this is up from 10% ten years ago.

Williams said he always had a “hit list” of 15 projects on his lab floor, each aimed at determining the feasibility of using robots for a given task. He was recently asked, for example, to determine if a robot could put bags of powdered detergent into boxes – a relatively new type of packaging for their Tide brand.

“That one didn’t move forward,” he said. Although it was possible, the cost of installing and programming the robots did not justify the investment for a relatively small volume item.

FLEXIBILITY AND AGILITY

Another project, still in progress, is to find a way to move a new type of bottle cap onto the detergent-bottle filling assembly line. This is usually done with a “decryptor,” a mechanism that shakes and rotates stacks of caps until they are oriented to power the filling machine. The new caps cannot go through this because they include a delicate device that could be damaged.

“We are working on a robot that will pick up 40 capsules at a time and index them in the final system,” he said.

At one of the company’s newest factories in Tablers Station, West Virginia, robots dot the production floor. On a recent day, fast moving arms plucked tubes of pink Pantene hair conditioner and placed them on a line to fill.

“We’re always looking for places where we need flexibility and agility,” said Jim Utter, project manager at the plant. One of the big opportunities he sees is the addition of mobile robots, which could be used to move batches of parts between different parts of the factory. Newer models can bypass unexpected obstacles, rather than relying on fixed lanes.

“It’s essential in a place like this, where everything is always moving,” he said.

Reporting by Timothy Aeppel; Editing by Dan Burns and Nick Zieminski

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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