GC Europe explores automation for processing orders to be shipped

GC Europe was thinking about automating its packaging processes with a cobot. Sorting all shapes and sizes of boxes into a single package ready for dispatch was the challenge. By building a test set-up Sirris was able to examine potential solutions.

GC designs and manufactures a wide range of products for dentists and dental technicians, including fillings, fixing cements, porcelain and dental plaster. GC Europe has a small manufacturing unit at Haasrode in Belgium, although the Japanese company operates here principally as a distribution centre for Europe, the Middle East and Africa.

Orders are prepared in the packaging department ready for shipping. First of all the small boxes containing products are picked and placed on a board or pallet and then ultimately placed in packages ready for shipping. The way this is done depends on the products ordered and size of the boxes. The company wanted to find out whether (part of) the order picking and also placing the boxes inside the shipping packages could be automated with a cobot. It called on Sirris to help them find answers.

Test equipment

Sirris initially analysed the existing process and the various actions involved, which was then followed by finding out whether some of these actions could be taken over by a cobot. Sirris set up a test rig in its laboratory in Diepenbeek using a cobot complete with a 3D camera. The 3D camera detected and identified the boxes to be packed in the packages and sent their position to the cobot which then picked them up, one by one and placed them in a predetermined location inside the package. Each component of test set-up was evaluated separately.

It emerged from the tests that the set-up had potential, although it also highlighted a couple of challenges including accurately identifying boxes that were similar, as well as the distances between objects and also reflective materials. It was also clear that the accuracy of the camera was insufficient. Precision is required for keeping the exact distances between the boxes when they are placed inside the package. The working area was limited because of the low levels of accuracy of the vision system.

Aligning and positioning

Several solutions for overcoming the problems were considered. In the end an alignment jig was used to simplify the system: this was done by repositioning the boxes against a fixed stop after being picked from the pallets. The 3D camera was used for recognising the boxes then coordinating and sending the dimensions of each box to the cobot for picking and then lifting it up exactly in the centre with a new alignment.

This gave GC Europe a good impression of the possibilities offered by automation for making orders ready for shipment.