As some of Australia’s largest logistics operations move further into heavily automated processes, Japanese innovator SMC Corporation has developed an award-winning solution to underpin this transformation.
Australian businesses are introducing automation at a record pace. Leading grocery retailer Woolworths has opened a $125 million fully automated distribution centre in Victoria and earlier this year Drakes Supermarkets opened a state-of-the-art $80 million distribution centre in South Australia.
The Drakes site incorporates more than $12 million of robotics as part of a high-tech warehouse picking system. The trend towards automation is not only happening in the large-scale grocery supply chain, there are also many smaller businesses implementing this kind of technology to gain efficiencies and increase throughput rates in response to record consumer growth.
At the very foundation of these solutions is the robots ability to move goods safely and efficiently around the warehouse. “You can invest in a multi-million-dollar automation system, but if the robot cannot pick up the product it’s pointless,” Rodney Ryan, State Manager at SMC Pneumatics says.
Robots are being increasingly used in palletising and depalletizing, particularly in the grocery supply chain. “Many grocery retailers are using Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) and robots to unpack and palletise product before sending to a store,” Rodney says.
There are two ways a robot can pick up product, either by mechanical grippers or by vacuum. “In logistics and warehousing you are usually working with large pallets and a mechanical gripper will not be suitable to pick up the products. So, 99 per cent of automated solutions use vacuum to move product around,” Rodney says.
SMC vacuum systems enables the robot to lift the goods to support whatever weight the robot needs to pick. “The vacuum is only limited by the robot size typically, whether that be 100kg payload or 1kg payload the vacuum can lift it,” Rodney explains.
With the rise of e-commerce, many logistics providers and retailers are deploying collaborative and agile robots. These robots also need to be nimble enough to pick up product and move it around the warehouse and this is also done via vacuum.
SMC Corporation is a global leader in its field and has developed vacuum solutions that uses compressed air as opposed to a vacuum pump, which is more commonly found in this solution.
Compressed air has historically been considered to be an expensive solution as well as not very energy efficient however Rodney points out that the SMC vacuum solutions have been designed with energy efficiencies in mind.
The vacuum generator solution has been fitted with smart equipment that senses and communicates when the vacuum needs to be turned on and off. “If something is picked up, and there is a leak in the vacuum, the unit will ensure that it automatically creates enough vacuum to stop that product from dropping prematurely,” Rodney says.
The energy benefits from utilising a smart solution that increases the amount of vacuum when needed has delivered favourable results for a number of global blue-chip companies.
“A major focus for many businesses right now is sustainability. Many of our customers have sustainability and environmental targets they need to meet and our technology can help meet these targets,” Rodney says.
After realising the energy saving benefits through compressed air savings, some customers have introduced the technology across their entire automated operation, Rodney says.
A further benefit of compressed air over vacuum pump technology is the longer service life and reduced maintenance.
The smart technology that is utilised to improve energy efficiency also delivers added safety benefits. “The energy saving function ensures that if there is a leak, more compressed air is added to ensure that it does not drop. By design this provides not only an efficient solution but a safer solution,” Rodney says.