It’s an unusual time to be in the paper and pulp industry.
The markets for paper products change on an almost monthly basis. It can be difficult to know how you should respond to keep your operations productive, profitable, and efficient.
Should you invest in automation for long-term efficiency gains?
Or should you batten down the hatches and reduce spending until the markets level out?
Several market forces have impacted the paper and pulp industry in recent years. Indeed, the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic saw a big dip in printing paper sales as the whole world moved to digital communications. The drive for more sustainability has also reduced the demand for printing paper over the last few years.
On the other hand, other parts of the paper industry are doing well. China’s paper industry, for example, has seen steady growth over the last 20 years and is still growing. The pandemic also saw an increase in demand for hygiene-related paper products.
Clearly, it’s a complex situation!
As a result, you may be uncertain about investing in robotic automation.
Do You Really Need Robotic Automation in the Paper Industry?
Automation has long been a part of the paper and pulp industry. Modern pulping and paper-making processes include many stages that cannot be carried out by humans.
However, while automation itself is common, robotics has been relatively uncommon in the paper industry until recently.
Paper mills often rely on legacy machinery.
As Paper & Pulp Canada magazine explains, this can be a problem. Legacy machines are more prone to shutdowns and are very labor-intensive. They require more person-hours to operate and are often unreliable.
Above all, this problem is compounded by the fact that it’s becoming harder to find good people to work in the paper and pulp industry. Skills gaps are opening up across the industry due to factors like the aging workforce, evolving markets, and various cultural shifts.
As Tommy Joseph from International Paper explains, the new mantra for the paper industry is: Make more products with less energy.
Robotic automation offers a tried and tested way to produce products more efficiently using a more distilled workforce. Therefore, each member of your team can devote more of their valuable expertise and skills to those tasks that provide the highest value to the process.
When You Need to Become Agile, Add Robots
The current challenges of operating in the paper industry are unlikely to be solved by simply “waiting for things to blow over.”
Those companies that are flourishing in the current climate are those that are becoming more agile and taking a proactive approach. For example, Global packaging giant Sonoco recently announced it is investing significantly in robotics and automation to improve its manufacturing operations.
This is a step that many companies in the paper and pulp industry would be wise to consider.
Robots have a proven track record in various other industries of making companies more agile. This allows them to respond quickly and efficiently to changes in the global market.
5 Robot Applications for the Paper Industry
What tasks can you carry out with robotic automation in the paper industry?
Many possible applications could suit your operations. Given the variety of processes, mills, and products, the best application for your business will depend on your unique needs.
Here are 5 examples of applications:
1. Dispensing and Sealing
Plenty of paper manufacturing steps involve dispensing adhesive or sealing products. Robots can be a reliable option for such tasks and are more consistent than humans performing the same job.
2. Palletizing and Depalletizing
Stacking boxes onto pallets is a dull and potentially dangerous task for humans. Robots are perfectly suited to palletizing and depalletizing tasks and can be applied to both small and huge palletizing tasks.
3. Machine Tending
Often, you won’t want to replace your existing automated machines completely. You just want to make them operate more efficiently. Robots can be used to tend other machines, such as crimpers so that your workers can perform more value-added tasks.
4. Label Placement
One of the main benefits of robots is the consistency they bring to operations. With label placement, for example, a robot will always apply labels, in the same way, every time. This improves the quality of your overall products.
5. Product Tracking and Inspection
Digital tracking technologies have become increasingly popular in the paper and pulp industry. They reduce paperwork and improve the efficiency of operations. Robots can be fitted with barcode scanners and other inspection sensors for automated tracking.
How to Identify the Right Robot Application for You
Besides the applications listed, there are plenty more robotic applications that are suitable for automating tasks in the paper industry.
To find the best task for you, it’s a good idea to start by listing all the potential tasks that could benefit from automation.
Identify those cases where human workers are performing dull, repetitive, and physically demanding tasks. In fact, those tasks do not make the best use of their cognitive abilities. Thus, such tasks are often the best candidates for robotic automation.
When you have identified one or two top tasks, you can test out your robotic application in a robot simulator, like RoboDK. This allows you to assess the task for its suitability for robotics before you invest in the robot itself.
You can download a free trial copy of RoboDK on our download page.