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Lifting Humans to New Heights in Palletising 

Written By: Ix Lee, Head of Sales SEA and Oceania at Universal Robots


The industrial revolution introduced the concept of palletising—the process of stacking and loading high quantities of goods onto a pallet with for storage or transportation. It changed the game, helping maximise the products in a load while keeping it stable, preventing damage. Ever since, it has become a necessity for businesses that produce at a commercial scale.

Without effective palletising, companies would struggle to get their goods to 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.

Harmful Ramifications of Manual Palletising

Traditionally, palletisation is a manual operation. Currently, it is estimated that 250,000 people are employed in this type of work worldwide. Manual palletising requires them to perform the same strenuous task on repeat – bending, lifting, and twisting for hours on end, which can cause long-term musculoskeletal damage.

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

  • Force. Workers use force in activities such as lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, and carrying. Its continuous use cumulates work-related muscle disorders such as back pain and injuries, along with neck and upper limb injuries. These might limit a worker’s ability to perform activities in their daily life. This risk 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.
  • Repetition. The task involves 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.
  • Posture. Workers often must 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 come close to the extreme end of their maximum range of movement. This is closely associated with musculoskeletal injuries.

Protecting Workers’ Health, Improving Performance

Irving Paz Chagoya, Global Segment Leader for Palletising at Universal Robots, said: “Before automating its palletising, one company we worked with estimated that over an eight-hour shift, each worker was lifting 8,000 kilograms of products, presenting a danger to body and posture.”

Automating palletising 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.

Window of Opportunity for SMEs

Although the repetitive and often dangerous nature of palletising means it lends itself very well to automation, progress has been gradual. Previously, automated palletising 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.

“Workers use force in activities such as lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling, and carrying. Its continuous use cumulates work-related muscle disorders such as back pain and injuries, along with neck and upper limb injuries. These might limit a worker’s ability to perform activities in their daily life.”

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 palletising. As a result, SMEs are now automating palletising.

Increasing Productivity

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.

Derek Chua, Director at Aubotic Technology, a Singapore-based robotics integrator aiming to free human hands from repetitive tasks, explained: “Heavy loads and the wrong lifting posture have been the main issues faced in places where we’ve installed automation to assist with palletising. This adds another issue for companies looking to fill job vacancies – many face challenges getting the ‘right’ worker for these tasks, as not everyone can deal with these heavy loads on a regular basis.”

He added: “The removal of these tasks revolving around heavy loads not only greatly supports the business with their challenges with regard to palletising, it value-adds to workers and their work environment, giving a safer working environment where they can also learn how to manage automation.”

Collaboration in Solving the Lack of Labour

Across many global markets, a labour crisis threatens to undermine operations in manufacturing and industrial companies. Reports are estimating a shortage of 47 million workers and USD $4.238 trillion in unrealised annual revenue across Asia by 2030. This challenge is compounded for SMEs, who generally have less room to manoeuvre than larger competitors when it comes to attracting and retaining workers of all skill levels.

Automation will bring with it wide-ranging benefits. As mentioned, human workers will be freed from dull, repetitive, and often dangerous jobs, meaning they can better apply their skills on tasks that require that human touch. The human-robot collaboration will help ease some of the burden caused by the lack of manpower on the manufacturing floor.

What’s to Come?

Looking ahead, collaborative palletising 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 palletisation.

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, palletising can be a dangerous and dull task, but it is 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 palletising roles and helping them to focus on more engaging and higher-value work.

Many hands make light work, let the cobots do the heavy lifting.