Procter & Gamble says it plans to ramp up the number of robots it has to a total of 5,000 in the next five years. It now has 3,000, up from 1,000 in 2013. Managers say the reason for the robotic increase is due to advances in vision and gripping, as well as robots that can work alongside people.
To keep costs down for the consumer, engineers at the Corporate Engineering Technology Labs (CETL) in West Chester design and test the robots.
Global Engineering and Supply Innovation Director Jeremy Hook sees the benefits. "Robotics have been stagnant and flat for about the first 20 years of my career. Now we're really on a new s-curve as you can see by how many we have."
Tooling around the four acres of lab space are autonomous vehicles, some of which carry other robots, two-armed robots sorting, and other robots that grip and separate.
Grip is important for robots so they can handle a variety of products, according to Applied Innovation Leader for Robotics Bob Bollinger. "As we change over from one product to the next, in the real world it would take time to change the tooling," he says. "Now, having one flexible tool will allow us to move from one product to the next in a very timely manner."
Engineer Paul Thomas is in the early stages of testing another robot he's working on. "So this is an in-house software that we write using an Intel real-sense camera and a pretty low-end computer."
It picks up bottles from a bin using advanced vision. The hope is that one day it can supply the bottles to a line where a variety of products can be dispensed at once, instead of just one product at a time, as it is now. This robot uses compressed air and turns it into a vacuum.
Hook says P&G has 150-200 collaborative robots (ones that work with people) including some at its Lima, Ohio plant.
Allowing for a wider range of products to ship to a single customer is another way robots are helping. The company's Aaron Knapschaefer explains how a computer program can increase the number of products it can pick using vacuum picking technology.
"With this program, we can increase the number of SKUs -- the number of products we pick -- and also allow us to pick a much wider range of secondary packages," he says.
P&G says it is out in front in the consumer product space with its use of collaborative robots, but the electronics and auto industries still lead all industries in robotics.