How collaborative robots could free workers from harmful palletizing work

The process of stacking, loading and securing high quantities of goods onto a pallet, with the aim of safely storing or transporting them, has existed since the beginning of the industrial revolution.

How collaborative robots could free workers from harmful palletizing work
How collaborative robots could free workers from harmful palletizing work

Known as palletizing, it maximizes the amount of product in a load while keeping it stable enough to prevent damage. It is a necessity for any business that produces things at scale for commercial consumption.

Without effective palletizing, companies would struggle to get their goods into the hands of consumers. There are around 2 billion pallets in service right now, with almost half a billion being produced every year. From barrels, to boxes, to bottles – the goods on these pallets keep the world fed, entertained and satiated.

However, these pallets do not stack themselves.

How collaborative robots could free workers from harmful palletizing work
How collaborative robots could free workers from harmful palletizing work

The dangers of palletization

Irving Paz Chagoya, Global Industry Segment Leader for Palletizing and Packaging at Universal Robots is keenly aware of the wide-spread dangers palletizing poses: “Traditionally, palletization has been a manual operation – and in many cases it still is – we estimate that 250,000 people are employed in this type of work worldwide. Manual palletizing requires these workers to perform the same strenuous task over and over again. Workers bend, lift and twist for hours on end, which can cause long term musculoskeletal damage.”

Setia Hermawati, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Nottingham, an ergonomics expert that specialises in manufacturing, identifies three main ergonomics risk factors in manual palletizing:


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."

How collaborative robots could free workers from harmful palletizing work
How collaborative robots could free workers from harmful palletizing work

Solving the labor crisis

Across many global markets, a labour crisis threatens to undermine operations in manufacturing and industrial companies. According to PwC’s Annual Manufacturing Report 2020, British manufacturers are facing the largest shortage of workers since 1989 – and things haven’t improved much in the last three years.

Manufacturing businesses are crying out for talent. The challenge is compounded for small and medium sized businesses. They generally have less room to manoeuvre than larger competitors when it comes to attracting and retaining workers of all skill levels.

In addition to this, musculoskeletal problems – caused by the more manual tasks associated with manufacturing (such as palletizing) – often lead to early exclusion of senior workers from this type of work - clearly running counter to the government’s current push to tempt older employees back in the workforce. Peter Williamson, CEO of the PPMA – the UK's Processing & Packaging, Trade Association, comments:

“UK manufacturers have long been reluctant to invest in automation, for fear of disrupting the status quo. However, now, both skills and labour shortages are forcing industry-wide changes. Automation is now a necessity for UK manufacturers.

This automation will bring with it wide-ranging benefits. We will see human workers freed from dull, repetitive and often dangerous jobs, meaning they can better apply their skills. Machines may be able to lift and move things but unlike humans they cannot feel, smell and see. Automation will also lead to increased productivity and lower the costs manufacturers have to bear for getting their goods out the door.

Labour shortages are only going to get more acute, and automation provides a fantastic solution. If we are to remain competitive on the global stage, UK manufacturers must act now.”

How collaborative robots could free workers from harmful palletizing work
How collaborative robots could free workers from harmful palletizing work

Dispelling the myths

However, despite these workforce pressures, many have been slow to automate. Often due to a lack knowledge, businesses fear the perceived expense of investing in automation and also don’t want to be seen taking jobs away from humans.

This doesn’t need to be the case. On the topic of cost, it’s been shown that cobots can achieve ROI in around 12 months. In fact, a single robotic arm can work nonstop for at least 35,000 hours, which is approximately four years of 24/7 work. And as with any tool, a robot that is treated with care can easily last longer.

As for dispelling the fears of job losses, cobots are designed to work alongside humans, not replace them. With minimal training, existing workforces can design, implement and monitor automated palletizing solutions. This frees them up to take other less risky and monotonous tasks – or take on more complex roles, opening up doors for career progression. As we know from McKinsey, workers with a greater sense of purpose enjoy their work more and are likely to stick around for longer.

The next five years

Looking ahead, collaborative palletizing solutions are well suited to wide a range of industries, these include food and beverage, electronics and pharmaceuticals. This adaptability combined with advances in cobot technology, means it’s likely we’ll see fewer and fewer workplace injuries due to manual palletization.

In the long-term, the changing workplace will make it easier for workers to stay in the workforce longer if they want to, while factory operators will hopefully see both productivity gains and increased revenues.

In short, palletizing can be a dangerous and dull task. The sort of task that machines excel at. Businesses of all sizes would be doing their human workers a favour by lifting them out of palletizing roles and helping them to focus on more engaging and higher value work.

Let’s let the cobots do the heavy lifting. Literally.

Universal Robots

We believe that collaborative robotic technology can be used to benefit all aspects of task-based businesses – no matter what their size.

We believe that the latest collaborative robot technology should be available to all businesses. The nominal investment cost is quickly recovered as our robotic arms have an average payback period of just six months.

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