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Automation in coding and labelling

Posted by: Katherine Garratt 24 Jan 17 - 11:15AM  | Engineering
Retail PackagingInvestment in automation technologies is proving to be a real differentiator as major retailers look to harness the full potential of omni-channel retail and fast track their operational logistics, to deliver both high quality products and a positive customer experience. 

As recently published in Retail Packaging, Richard Heaton, Lead Consultant for theAutomation & Robotics Division, considers the exciting potential of automation as successful, ambitious retailers look to take the next step on the national and international stage and how, with the right team in place, it may not be as challenging a prospect as they might think.

The recently announced deal between Avery Dennison Retail Branding and Information Solutions (RBIS) and smart products platform pioneer Evrythng sees the world’s largest Internet of Things (IoT) deal to ‘switch on’ the apparel and footwear industry through product coding and labelling.

The two companies are working together to enable over 10 billion clothing and footwear products for some of the world’s largest fashion and performance brands to be given unique digital identities and data profiles in the cloud over the next three years. The two companies believe it to be the largest number of IoT-connected products in a single deal ever.
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It represents the first truly industrial scale digital enablement of everyday products and allows brands to deliver an interactive experience with their products, providing personalised, real-time mobile experiences and content for each individual consumer and each item of clothing. Products will also become smarter, using real-time data analytics to tackle problems like product authentication for better brand protection and increased efficiency in supply chains.

Closer to home, a Dorset company has developed a robotic system which uses a 3D camera to apply price and promotion labels to low volume produce such as melons and pomegranates, while robots are successfully being used to dispense drugs in pharmacies using vision recognition technology to pick, pack and distribute items with a level of accuracy unrivalled by human operators.

Most of the items we use or consume contain various regulated codes and markings, from best-before to EAN or Data Matrix barcodes to serial batch numbers and various unique identifiers. Such markings ensure traceability and product safety to protect consumers and avoid counterfeiting. As manufacturers aim to meet growing demand for product identification and brand protection, they are looking at new ways to implement coding and marking equipment in their factories and throughout their supply chain.

Today, innovation can be seen everywhere in the retail supply chain. In the past, logistics companies may have attached an RFID tag to a shipping crate containing small, perishable products like medicine, yogurt or meat. With smart labels, tracking can be performed at individual item level by simply applying a label to each individual product. This allows companies to get insights down to the item level rather than the shipping container level.

Because labels and markings can increasingly carry complex data, the most advanced technologies are particularly being applied to high end goods such as perfumes, jewellery and even diamonds. Some markings of authenticity are now so minute that they cannot be seen with the naked eye, but are vital to reassuring customers in markets where fraud and counterfeiting are widespread.

When it comes to the pioneering possibilities of automation, it would be easy to forget the key role that skilled engineers have in conquering new challenges. In fashion, for example, it might be picking hanging garments using robotics, or staying one step ahead of the counterfeiters and the enormous challenge of meeting customer expectations to deliver 24/7.

The use of robots in retail distribution centres has been growing rapidly as they can provide personalised fulfilment, profitably and deliver high speed, intelligent selection with repeatability not achievable by humans. Robots equipped with advanced imaging and motion technology can identify objects by shape, QR or other coding, move them quickly from one place to another and keep accurate records of all activity.

With the allure and increasingly demonstrable benefits of robotic technologies, companies need to think about how they will resource their own transition to automated processes. The options are to hire specialist staff, provide dedicated training or outsource to equipment suppliers. For both manufacturer and automation supplier, competition for talented engineers is intense.

Robotic system maintenance also requires more advanced training or experience in high technology. For example, maintaining an electromechanical gripping assembly on a robot requires knowledge of mechatronics, a combination of electronics, pneumatics and mechanics, while vision and perception technologies, such as 2D and 3D cameras, lasers and photo sensors need expertise in optical engineering. Finally, software engineers can be the key component in integrating robotics with warehouse control systems and other management and data tools.

It is therefore critical when planning the introduction of automated systems that the people needed to design, install and maintain it for the years to come are considered and planned for from the outset to ensure the transition is successful and delivers on anticipated improvements in performance and efficiency from day one.
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