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Thinking Ahead–Letter from Chaille: Are Robots in Your Future?
Immigration reforms could lead to fewer illegals available to do basic tasks in the workforce. It might open the door to more robotics as technology improvements lower the cost for machines.

By Chaille M. Brindley
Date Posted: 3/1/2013

                Some of the biggest, most highly automated pallet and lumber processing facilities in the world use robotics. Most of these plants are located in Europe. What do they know that we don’t?

                In the past when U.S. pallet and lumber facilities have evaluated the potential for replacing some workers with robots for repetitive functions, they have never been able to make the numbers work out. Thanks to an influx of inexpensive migrant workers from South America, the United States has been able to remain competitive without a significant labor supply problem. That may all be getting ready to change.

                As an article on page 64 indicates, it looks like the illegal immigration situation is about to change. While millions may come out of the shadows, proposed reforms may also make it harder for people who come across the border in the future to live and gain employment in this country. Thus, the flood of illegal immigrants may end. It all depends on how visa and work permit rules are changed as part of comprehensive immigration reform. Already a down economy has led to fewer illegal aliens coming across the border in recent years.

                Even though the country still has fairly high unemployment, it can be difficult for some pallet and lumber companies to find good workers. Jobs in the industry are hard, and many people don’t want to do them. One of the biggest reasons that companies may turn to robots is that they always show up for work. There is no sick leave or lost production due to hunting season. Robots perform functions at an established pace as well as quality to ensure that things are done right the first times.

                This issue of Pallet Enterprise includes a feature story on AGLOLAK, a Spanish pallet company that has used automation and robotics to boost productivity, reduce errors and limit downtime. AGLOLAK switched to robots when it changed focus to produce longer runs, more complicated pallets with higher quality standards. It seems that specialized pallet and packaging requirements are harder to automate with robotics. It takes time to train a robot to do new tricks. But even that is changing too with the development of cost effective robots that can easily learn new tasks.

                Inc. magazine recently carried a story on Rodney Brooks, a famous robotics expert, who has developed a robot that can easily learn new tasks without expensive programming. This robot, called Baxter, sells for less than $30,000. Brooks’ company, Rethink Robotics, has designed Baxter to do the following tasks: materials handling, loading and unloading lines, inspection, sorting, machinery operation, light assembly, finishing products, and packing and unpacking items. No safety cages are required because Baxter automatically detects when humans enter its work space.

                While nobody knows how practical advances in robotics will become for the pallet and lumber industries, it seems that new advances in the works could change the way that people previously thought about robotics for small manufacturing operations.

                CHEP, the world’s largest pallet rental company is looking to use more robotics in its global operations. Last year, CHEP selected a new automated 3D pallet inspection system by Universal Robotics of Nashville, Tenn. It will be rolled out at CHEP’s Florida service center and may be deployed across its network over the coming years. CHEP chose the Universal Robotics Spatial Vision Inspection (SVI) solution because it offers 3D inspection as well as a proprietary learning system designed to help make the process smarter and more efficient over time.

                By identifying pallet defects accurately and reliably, SVI is expected to reduce scrap and raw materials, while improving the consistency of overall pallet quality, according to CHEP officials.

                Ed Mabe, CHEP senior director for global process engineering, said: “Universal Robotics’ novel approach provides CHEP with an innovative low-cost 3D pallet inspection system that will improve the consistency of product quality by eliminating human variability in the inspection process and expand automation in our supply chain.”

                Traditional pallet inspection has been done visually with varying levels of manual handling or automated machinery, requiring the pallet to be lifted and flipped to see all surfaces. Stringent and frequent audits are required to reduce the variability of visual inspection.

                Previous 2D vision solutions that had been tested by CHEP are not as reliable as 3D due to the limitations of the technology and the structure of a pallet. Replicating manual inspection requires a flexible, automated vision system that quickly identifies a wide range of defects, including raised nails, and wood damage - whether split, loose, or missing - at a productive line speed. This solution sees more of the pallet at a faster rate than current approaches, delivering consistent quality levels for CHEP’s partners and customers.

                Universal Robotics boasts the ability to offer the only 3D technology that incorporates a self-learning capability. Called the Neocortex ™, this artificial intelligence technology uses sensor information to learn. The software is independent of any hardware, allowing it be used for a host of applications from data analysis to robot and motor control. According to Universal Robotics its Neocortex technology allows companies to leverage the best sensors and equipment to expand flexible automation, while ensuring a measurable return on investment.

                CHEP has experimented with automatic inspection systems in the past and has yet to find one that worked well enough to make it a standard part of its operation. But this time, CHEP seems to believe that Universal’s approach will work to achieve its goals. CHEP explained, “In the case of a pallet, much of the damage occurs at the edges - where forklifts and material handling equipment make first contact. To provide the required precision at high speed would require very expensive 2D cameras. The other alternative is to go to 3D vision.”

                The pallet rental giant went on to further explain, “Just like a human’s stereoscopic vision with both eyes open, 3D enables clarity even at the edge of your field of view. Universal Robotics is able to create very accurate 3D imaging with robust, state-of-the-art software and very inexpensive sensors, rather than using expensive lasers that are regulated in many jurisdictions. These inexpensive off-the-shelf sensors can be easily replaced if they get damaged or broken.”

                Will robotics be the future of pallet inspection and repair? This may seem more like science fiction to the typical pallet guy. But CHEP believes it has found a key to reduce variance and improve quality in its supply chain.

                I believe that robots may indeed be in our future. Drivers, such as higher labor costs, increased production demands and tighter error tolerances, could make robotics more important. When it comes to highly specialized functions, such as completely repairing a pallet, I believe these functions will be the hardest to automate with robotics because each pallet is a new puzzle to solve. Robotics may make the biggest mark on the pallet and lumber industries with basic functions that are highly repetitive. However, the development of low-cost robotics that can be easily trained to do basic functions is certainly a game changer.

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