During manual palletizing, workers have to manually handle items and use forces in activities such as lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling and carrying. The continuous use of forces in manual material handling is shown to be associated with cumulative work-related muscle disorders such as back pain and back injuries, as well as neck and upper limb injuries. These disorders may have serious consequences for workers and limit their ability to perform activities in their daily life. The risk of manual handling is exacerbated when the items are too heavy, too large, difficult to grasp, and are positioned in a manner that requires torso bending or twisting.
Palletizing and de-palletizing involve performing the same actions repeatedly throughout a work shift. Repetitive tasks place excessive strain and fatigue on the cardiovascular system due to the demands placed on the working muscles, as the muscles may not have sufficient time for recovery. Even repetitive handling of light items may pose a risk of upper limb disorders if workers need to perform them more than once every 5 seconds, according to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.
During palletizing and de-palletizing, workers often have to twist while handling the items and bend forward to reach or place items over the lower layers on the pallet. Manual handling that involves torso twisting as well as forward and sideways bending means that the joints are beyond their comfortable and neutral position and close to the extreme end of their maximum range of movement and is closely associated with musculoskeletal injuries. In addition to this, manual palletizing workers generally stand between the conveyor and the pallet for an extended period. Prolonged standing, standing continuously at the same spot, has been shown to be associated with various potentially negative health outcomes such as lower back and leg pain, cardiovascular problems, etc.
Irving Paz Chagoya, adds: “Before automating its palletizing, one company we worked with estimated that over an eight-hour shift, each worker was lifting 8,000 kgs of product, presenting a danger to body and posture.”
Automating palletizing can relieve workers from all the associated health risks, reduces tedium and improves overall well-being. This allows workers to both protect their health and focus on other tasks more suited to their skills, such as quality assurance.
The opportunity for SMEs
Although the repetitive and often dangerous nature of palletizing means it lends itself very well to automation, progress has been gradual.
Previously, automated palletizing has been limited to large enterprises with both the floor space and funds to install and operate the bulky machinery previously required to undertake the task.
However, this is no longer the case.
The increased use of cardboard to pack and store goods, the advances in collaborative robotics (cobots) capable of increased payloads and the falling price point of automation has opened-up the market for collaborative palletizing. As a result, SMEs are now automating palletizing.
For SMEs, automating the process allows them to not only protect and better use the human workforce, but to increase productivity too. This allows SMEs to be more competitive against larger manufacturers and offer better working environments for their staff. Sam Bouchard, CEO of Robotiq, a robotics integrator aiming to free human hands from repetitive tasks, comments:
"In many factories where we've installed our palletizing solution, the palletizing task is the bottleneck that prevents company growth. Increasing palletizing capacity with a collaborative robot has allowed those businesses to produce more, and hire more workers in the upstream production processes.
“In addition having a collaborative robot palletizing cell enables the business to offer better working conditions to the humans who take care of the robot."