Automatic labeling: easier, faster, more reliably
The “K-Label labeling system”, which combines an industrial robot with a label printer and dispenser, is accelerating the logistics processes at the sanitary manufacturer GROHE. It reduces the workload of the employees and helps manage continuous growth. It was developed through the collaborative efforts of Kawasaki Robotics and the labeling specialist REA LABEL.
With an elegant sweep the robot arm takes a label and applies it to the pallet – a short, precise movement – then the arm returns to its original position. Now it’s the forklift driver's turn. He uses his forklift to take the pallet from the roller conveyor and maneuvers it within the tightest of spaces directly to the load bed of the waiting truck.
The logistics employee and his colleagues send 200 to 250 pallets with sanitary installation systems on their way per shift. 52 trucks per day bring wash basins, urinals or flush-mounted elements for toilet flushing systems from the GROHE factory premises to the distribution center. From there they are sent around the globe. GROHE is a world-leading supplier of sanitary fittings. The factory in Porta Westfalica, which employs 475 people, is one of three production sites in Germany – around 1.6 million installation systems and around 2 million wall plates are produced there every year. It used to take significantly longer, however, until a truck was loaded and heading out the yard because the final task in the factory was a manual one. And therefore expensive, time consuming and, in particular, prone to error.
Up until a few months ago, for every pallet that needed to be shrink wrapped and labeled before leaving the factory, the forklift drivers used to get off their vehicle, print out the packing slip and staple it on, then climb back onto the forklift – only then could they put the pallet on the forks and bring it to the truck. “That was not only strenuous for the employees, the packing slip was often defective with transposed numbers, or even illegible”, says Wilhelm Braun, Production Manager at the GROHE factory. “As a result of this process we were no longer able to manage our continuous growth in recent years, which was in the two-digit range.”
Braun looked for a solution that would accommodate both the human and growth aspects. “As part of our preventative health management initiatives, we wanted to improve the ergonomics of the process for our employees. But because space was so constrained in our factory, we needed a system that was particularly compact and space-saving while also being very flexible so that we could label pallets of different sizes”, he explains in regards to his demanding expectations. “I found exactly what we had always been looking for in a brochure from REA and Kawasaki.” This was his first contact with the K-Label labeling system. Two globally active, renowned companies were involved in the development of this automated labeling system: Kawasaki Robotics, experts in industrial robots, and REA LABEL, specialists in industrial labeling systems for applying labels to different products and surfaces.
Two of these K-Label systems are now operating in the factory at GROHE – as integrated system components of the two production lines. What appears to be completely effortless now is the result of a customization process involving the close collaboration of REA, Kawasaki and GROHE. This included a meeting at the REA manufacturing site in Halle/Westphalia. That's where the two systems – including the protective safety barriers as per the EU Machinery Directive – were first fully assembled, installed and accepted by GROHE. This sped up the installation process at the factory in Porta Westfalica and ensured that the required fine tuning did not lead to unnecessary downtimes.
The labeling system communicates with the existing conveying equipment and on-site warehouse management system via interfaces, thereby guaranteeing trouble-free operation overall. “The two labeling systems are simply there and always functioning – they are among those equipment items I hear least about”, the production manager Braun declares “enthusiastically”. Remote maintenance and online troubleshooting capabilities have been prepared and tested in cooperation with the REA JET experts and are therefore functional, but are not yet being used at GROHE.
The conveying equipment informs the labeling system that a pallet is ready for processing. “We can track every single pallet and know exactly where each one is at all times”, explains Wolfgang Rehschuh, a plant manager at REA. An ultrasound sensor on the receiving side of the labeling cell determines the height of the pallet to be labeled and reports this to the system. “If one doesn't happen to be full, that’s irrelevant to the system”, explains Braun. “It processes different pallet heights reliably, detects the actual height, and applies the packing slip label exactly where it needs to be.” The robot currently applies the label at the rear – it could apply it any other location, however, even on the top side. It would also be possible to simultaneously apply two labels on different sides of the pallet. GROHE is therefore equipped for future requirements.
The GROHE warehouse management system sends the labeling system the data for each specific packing slip. This occurs four positions before the actual marking operation to ensure the system has sufficient time to initiate the printing process. GROHE designed the label itself. “We are the first site in the Grohe group to have changed our packing slips from the customary DIN A4 format to DIN A6”, explains production manager Braun. “That makes us the first in the group to adopt best practice and are happy to serve as an example for the other sites who are already aware of our solution.” This solution has enabled GROHE to reduce the workload on its logistics employees by 38 percent and significantly increase their work and physical safety as they can now control everything from their forklift trucks. Many more of the around 6,000 GROHE employees around the world, of whom 2,400 work in Germany, could therefore benefit from this solution.
A soft hiss can be heard as the REA LABEL DS label dispenser with integrated thermal transfer label printer issues a packing slip label. The robot arm picks it up using a vacuum plate and transfers it with an elegant dance-like rotation to the awaiting pallet to which it will be applied. With a rotation almost reminiscent of break dancing, the robot utilizes the very limited space available to it at GROHE and applies the label from the REA LABEL DS to a precisely defined location on the pallet.
The label pickup plate on the robot arm can not only generate a vacuum for transferring labels but is also equipped with a spring-loaded base and sensors. This enables the robot to “feel” the label being placed on the shrink wrap film of the pallet – it can therefore also correctly perform this task on angled surfaces. Once the label has been successful transferred from the plate, a message is sent to the system which then activates the scanner on the robot arm. A brief flash of red light and the packing slip has been checked for correctness and readability. Production manager Braun explains the advantages compared to manual handling: “We have significantly decreased the error rate and know: Everything we send out will be accepted at the destination because the labels have been correctly applied and are readable.” Another important aspect was the easily releasable adhesive for the packing slips because they need to removed without residue in the GROHE distribution center before being replaced by a customer-oriented packing slip.
Surrounding the entire labeling system is a protective safety barrier that is also integrated into the cross-departmental safety system. If somebody enters the labeling area without authorization and without the necessary releases, the activated safety sensor stops the entire system.
Should the growth that the GROHE factory has experienced during the past few years continue, production manager Braun is confident that a further REA LABEL labeling system will be integrated in the logistics area.