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The Robots Are Coming, the Robots are Coming! Issues & Trends in Advanced Automation
Advanced Automation: Leading suppliers discuss major trends and developments in pallet and lumber machinery including robotics, scanner and more. This article will help you identify what you need to know before making that big machinery or automation purchase including a list of key questions to consider.

By Chaille Brindley
Date Posted: 10/5/2018


At the recent Interpal meeting,                one issue rang out more than any other. No, it wasn’t lumber. It was labor. Regardless of the location or the type of business, almost everyone was having problems finding and retaining good production employees.

This labor crunch has spurred significant technology research and investment over the past few years. None of the technologies are breakthroughs compared to other major industries, such as automotive or high-speed consumer product manufacturing. But they are firsts for pallets and in some cases wood products.

The following are insights from machinery experts who share their thoughts on advanced automation, including robotics. Some of these comments come from interviews conducted by Pallet Enterprise. Others are taken from a panel at the National Wooden Pallet & Container Association’s Annual Leadership Conference (ALC) held earlier this year.

More than really answering your questions, this article is designed to help you know what questions to ask so that you can make the right decisions. There is no one right solution here. However, the options are improving daily.

Advanced automation is a whole lot more than just robots. Some of the fastest production facilities use no robots at all because robots have longer cycle times required by the motion of the robot. But there are some applications where robots are a good fit.


Wood Makes Process Variability More Complex

Why is advanced automation so difficult with wood products? The reason is simple – wood is not like plastic or metal. It varies significantly in length, thickness, shape, defect, curvature, etc. Beyond just advanced ways to move and assemble wood, you also must do a better job of sortation, sourcing and inspecting lumber if you want to deploy advanced automation.

Kurt Larsen, president of Viking Engineering, said, “One of the hurdles we are working through is how to automate with inconsistent, low quality lumber while maintaining quality and the uptime standards of the industry.”

Viking is currently exploring how to use advanced automation to augment its current line of pallet nailing equipment. At EXPO Richmond, Viking unveiled a video of its new Voyager nailing system that is designed to allow for faster production and automated board feeding using either a robot or unscrambler. Both approaches use singulation machinery to load one board at a time into the hoppers. Somewhat similar technology has also been developed and sold by Storti and CAPE.

Larsen added, “The pallet industry has been asking for machines that either ease the ergonomic load for operators or can eliminate the material handling labor altogether. The new Voyager was designed with that in mind and also to accommodate a wide range of lumber types and material loading methods.”

One thing working against advanced automation right now is the lumber shortage. Pallet companies are taking what they can get. And it is hard to demand consistency and quality when you are just trying to find enough material to keep operations running without breaking the bank. Developing a lumber specification is important to make faster production a reality when using robotics or other forms of advanced automation.

Mario Cucciari of Storti identified that loads can vary significantly in quality to even how the lumber is stacked, and this can make advanced automation difficult. One concern, especially in cold climates, is lumber freezing or sticking together. Cucciari explained, “Even if you have good quality timber, if the wood is frozen, the robot cannot work properly.”

A solution around this problem is to use advanced automation where lumber is de-stacked using a tilt device and unscrambler that conveys individual boards into a singulation device that feeds the hoppers.  This approach is popular for plants in Germany, Poland, Scandinavian countries that face cold temperatures and harsh winters. Storti first introduced this automatic board feeding technology in 2004, according to Cucciari.

Even if your climate is relatively mild, if you source timber from colder regions, you may still have problems with frozen lumber. In other cases, wood resin may cause boards to stick together. When evaluating any advanced automation technology, you must consider your lumber quality and sourcing. Don’t just look at what you are having to do now, consider how the market and your needs may change over the next 5-10 years.

Besides machinery, suppliers have suggested that the industry needs to work to better control its supply chain. A number of major pallet companies have done just that by purchasing or developing their own sawmill capacity.

Jeff Jensen, president of Corali-USA, commented, “I don’t think that we can just say the wood in Europe is better so that they can handle the automation. I am sure at some point the wood wasn’t so great in Europe. But they were forced to make changes to automate for their survival.”

Developing a standard is much easier to do for new pallet construction. But you still need to inspect incoming loads to ensure compliance. A number of pallet companies in the United States and Europe have deployed lumber scanning technology to identify defects, lumber thickness tolerance, etc.

Scanners cannot magically change poor quality lumber into better, more consistent supply. It all starts with your lumber purchasing and monitoring. Scanners are merely monitors that can help you kick out poor quality material and evaluate the true yield of various sources. If you don’t think you can get the material to begin with, the scanner may do little good other than truly let you know how bad the problem is.

The scanning technology exists because it is used in sawmills across the globe to optimize the yield. The sticker shock is the real show stopper here. You can try other approaches first through focusing on your purchasing criteria and inspection of incoming loads. You may have to pay a bit more for it. But if you establish a process to monitor quality, suppliers will respond in time. And if you control your own sawmills, this can be even easier to do by establishing consistency in everything from dimension to stacking patterns.


More Than One Way to Do It

During the ALC panel, Giovanni Perini, a technical sales expert at Corali, pointed out that there are different types of automation – some require robots, others do not. He suggested that you want to find the right technology for the application and make the process as simple as possible. While Corali does use robots in some lines, it doesn’t do it if other forms of advanced automation work better.

A common use of robotics in pallet nailing lines in Europe is for stacking pallets at the end. Robotic stackers give the operator greater flexibility in terms of stacking patterns, placement, etc.

Cucciari of Storti stated, “There is no one solution for everybody.” He spoke about the importance of customization to find the right solution for the customer. This includes how the plant is laid out to the type of material processed to the amount of changeover and versatility required in the line.

One audience member asked about the rate of change and should companies wait for better innovations down the road? Cucciari responded, “If you take that attitude, you will never buy automation…Don’t buy automation like you are buying a standard product. It has to be made specifically for your company.”

The truth is that innovation will only be driven by those who have the courage to leap before the technology is proven. If everybody waits for a sure thing, then the pallet industry will not experience a technology revolution. Many of the advanced automation technologies being investigated now have been around in other industries for decades. The big difference is that the pallet industry in the past solved those problems with people. And the labor crunch is changing the landscape where people may not be available to fix the problems.

Doug Wenninger, president of Alliance Automation, told Pallet Enterprise, “Something that is consistent is that everybody is talking about labor and the lack of labor availability, and that conversation is getting worse.” He added that the number of people who are warming up to advanced automation in pallet operations is increasing every day. In some cases, it isn’t all about the return-on-investment (ROI). Companies are concerned about just being able to keep their doors open due to the labor shortage.

Smart pallet companies are taking a harder look at automation in conjunction with an overall focus on improving their operations and using lean thinking. Wenninger stated, “It’s not just about replacing a person with a robot. It is about optimizing the performance of the plant in general.”

Many of the suppliers quoted in this article, including Alliance Automation, offer free consultations to discuss automation goals as well as current realities.


Learning Curve and Flexibility

Technology is advancing, and some want to wait to see how it will all shake out. Others recognize that early movers will enjoy certain advantages sooner. Plus, most machinery suppliers have a backlog of work. You can’t expect to want a machine and be able to get it in 3-4 months. Some machinery suppliers are backed up a year or more.

It is true that subsequent generations of technology will be better, usually at lower cost. But that will only become a reality if early movers pave the way and invest in these developments now.

If you design the equipment to be simple and adaptable to new technology advances then you can always be at the forefront of technology. Marc Perez of CAPE, highlighted this point. He said, “Whenever you decide to invest in something for the future, it must be something that allows expansion and adaptation. Whatever you decide must have the ability to grow up.”

Jensen of Corali-USA agreed on the importance of adaptability. He suggesting that lines should be developed in a modular approach where improvements can be added. He also said that Corali designs its lines so that boards can also be fed manually in some situations to accommodate changing customer demands. Will your line be used for block or stringer pallets or both? You must consider what the line may need to do in a decade not just today.

One example of a rapidly developing technology is the new robotic pallet dismantler developed by Alliance Automation. Having seen various iterations of this machine, it has definitely improved. Wenninger explained, “Initially, we were dismantling a pallet per minute, and we are now down to sub 30 seconds. We are getting consistently 800-900 pallets per shift with one operator. You can double that production with a two-saw system.”


Rethink Your Flow

Beyond just putting in a new machine, many companies need to evaluate their process from the ground up. Just because this is the way you have always done it doesn’t mean it is the best way to maximize throughput.

Wenninger said, “One thing we are trying to preach is one-piece flow. As you bring product into your plant, you want to handle it as little as possible. And you want to move it as little as possible. And you want your people touching it as few times as possible.”

This approach locates sortation at the front of a pallet recycling operation. Instead of having workers at repair stations sorting pallets, sortation is done earlier in the operation. This frees up the repairer to focus on one thing and make fewer steps suggested Wenninger. The repair operator no longer needs to make judgement calls about what to do with the pallet. This process is centralized in the beginning of the process, which also makes it easier to track data in terms of core quality from each load. Wenninger added, “We stress trying to understand your inbound loads. Are you getting the maximum amount out of each load? So, we are trying to strongly encourage up front sortation.”

Currently, Alliance Automation is working on a gauge and sortation system for determining quality, size and quantity of incoming loads. This current prototype relies on a combination of photo eyes and lasers to obtain data. Wenninger projected, “This sortation/gauge system is something we want to be able to put into every recycler’s hands. Based upon the price point we are targeting, people have told us it is a 6-8 month pay back.”

Another option would be a vision system similar in function but not operation to the inspection machines deployed by major poolers in Europe. 


Analyzing Your Whole Approach 

Looking at pallet facilities, you have a number of different labor tasks. Is there a way to maximize efficiency by allowing employees to focus on fewer tasks? What about your current facility layout and flow? What wasted motion can be eliminated? 

You need to really evaluate your entire process to see where things could be run better, possibly use fewer people. The list of questions on page 52 should help your evaluation.


Questions to Consider for Advanced Automation in Pallet Operations?

1.) What is your core manufacturing challenge? Why do you want advanced automation?

2.) Where is your bottleneck? How can merely lean business principles reduce wasted motion? Then look to add automation to push the performance even further.

3.) What do you hope to produce on the line? Minimize order sizes? How quickly will you need to change the machine from one size to another?

4.) Lumber quality – what are you really getting now? What are your tolerances for lumber thickness? What about the shape and diameter of the material?

5.) What are your space and layout requirements? You may need to expand a facility or rearrange it to accommodate advanced automation.

6.) What is the one thing you wish your line could do but you think it is impossible to achieve? Spend some time dreaming about solving that problem.

7.) Where do you currently inspect the lumber or incoming cores and sort it? Would automation or scanning/inspection help? Or do you need to just work on purchasing criteria and monitoring of incoming loads first?

8.) Is a person adding value each time he/she touches material or finished goods? Look to identify wasted motion and steps and optimize the layout of everything.

9.) How adaptable is the machinery line/automation?

10.) Can you see this technology run somewhere else? Maybe even ship some of your lumber or a core trailer to the site to see how it handles your material. 

11.) What can you do to enable workers to focus more on one or two key functions versus several actions?

12.) What data do you need to run a better operation? How can your system be improved to facilitate better data capture?

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Advanced Automation