Robotic Process Automation (RPA)

RPA is based on using programmable software to perform repetitive tasks. In various contexts RPA is used for rules-based processing of data such as customer records and contact cycles. For processing, packaging and manufacturing, RPA involves robots and other machinery performing a wide variety of physical activities controlled by programmable software.

All businesses use processes which are to a greater or lesser extent repetitive. Innovations such as the use of punch cards to control looms for weaving in the early 1800s introduced basic automated control. With the development of increasingly powerful computers in the later decades of the 1900s, robotic processes increasingly took centre stage in a multitude of business operations. RPA is now established as one of the latest and most effective approaches to automating processes.  

How does RPA help organisations? 

RPA’s fundamental benefit is to increase productivity by performing repetitive tasks at speed with great accuracy. Automated processes require a lower headcount than manual working, and, after the initial investment, can offer significant cost savings. Staff working with robots and automated systems have been shown to have higher morale due to being relieved of the boredom that comes with endless repetition. 

RPA is also scalable and flexible, and can generally be integrated into existing ways of working and legacy systems. Increasingly, too, systems are straightforward to use with intuitive drag and drop interfaces or even voice control.

See our full review of the benefits of RPA for manufacturing.

What types of robot are used in RPA?

The world of robotic automation is dominated by four principal types of robot:  

Articulated Arm Robots

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Articulated arm robots are flexible and versatile, with the ability to position goods in almost any place. The end of the arm features a gripper which can be mechanical, magnetic or a suction pad. Robots of this type are not designed to lift heavy goods, and do require a large working area for installation. They are highly adaptable and very well suited to operation as part of a packaging line.

Cartesian Robots

Cartesian robots .png

Cartesian robots operate from an overhead gantry and are designed to lift heavier weights. They are often used in assembly lines, and for loading and unloading heavier goods and packs. They are very accurate and are also used for sealing larger packages.  

Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm (SCARA) robots

Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm (SCARA) robots .png

Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm (SCARA) robots get close to the range of movements of a human arm. The main arm rotates from a fixed base, with a pick-up arm rotating at an angle to the main arm. The arm can be programmed to pick up selectively (e.g. every second product from a conveyor belt). Multiple pick up options make SCARA robots very useful for assembly applications, including placing multiple products in pre-formed trays for packaging. They are also used in packaging operations for palletising. 

Delta Robots

Delta robots .png

Delta robots consist of three sets of parallel arms which converge in a pick-up point. The point can be moved anywhere in a 360° orbit, allowing the arm to pick and place goods in an infinitely flexible way. They are ideal for picking and placing lighter goods in packaging material before wrapping and sealing.

Other types of frequently used robots include autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) which are now a feature of many warehouses, assembly plants and a growing number of other operations. These mobile robots can move inventory around the workplace floor as part of a workflow process. Autonomous lifting robots are able to pick goods from higher level storage locations and to lift them to racked storage locations.

See more about robot types, plus what they can do in Robots Explained.

Programmable Controls in RPA

Programmable control systems, also known as bots, are an integral part of automated packaging. The principles behind the design of control systems is that they should be configurable for the required process, that they should be straightforward to use for operating staff, and that they should be accessible to developers for improvement and future-proofing.  

Automation workflows vary across packaging, processing and manufacturing operations, and can be set up using RPA tools. It is possible to base tools on basic software such as Excel and macros, or more sophisticated programmable bots. Increasingly there are options on self-learning tools and bots which move into the realm of AI.

The best option for general operators, as opposed to developers, is a drag and drop interface for controls. The approach is relatively straightforward to master, and allows non-technical staff with the appropriate training to set up automated workflows involving all the functions within a packaging or manufacturing operation, including the control of robots.

Depending on requirements, workflows can easily be changed for handling different products or assembling different packages. Flexibility is one of the clear benefits of RPA, and the straightforward user interfaces are key to making the changes needed for any workflow. 

The use of computerised tools also provides complete data recording of the operation for monitoring, analysis, reporting and costing purposes. Data is easily shared via the cloud to different operating centres and management teams, and allows organisations to maintain a detailed picture of their operations in real time as well as providing management information for future planning. 

How does RPA work in packaging?

There are two core types of packaging. Primary packaging takes a core product in solid, liquid or gas form and places it in containers such as bags, pouches, plastic wrapping, bottles, tins and cylinders. Secondary packaging groups products in cartons, trays, crates and bundles to facilitate handling, transport and storage. End of line operations such as palletising and pallet wrapping allow groups of packages to be moved around warehouses, stored in racking, and loaded onto trucks.

The key tasks of robots in packaging are to handle and move goods and packages, to pack and seal, and to apply labels. 

See more about robots in packaging.

RPA in primary packaging

Automated primary packaging involves products being presented on a packaging line for wrapping or filling. If a solid product is to be wrapped in film, it will normally be fed by a conveyor system to a bespoke unit for shrink wrapping or stretch wrapping. Automated systems can be used, for example, to: 

  • control the conveyor speed, including stop/start operation

  • control robotic arms or Cartesian robots which place the product on the conveyor  

  • dispense units which unroll measured amounts of film

  • enclose the product in film

  • seal the wrapping by heat or the use of adhesives

  • visually inspect equipment to ensure that the package conforms with required standards

  • transport the wrapped product by conveyor to the secondary packaging area of the automated packing line.

The process from beginning to end can be set up for continuous operation overseen by a limited number of staff to ensure that the automated equipment functions as required. 

Loose powders, granules and cereals, are usually fed from a hopper. The products are usually gravity fed with automated systems measuring the amount of product dispensed either by weight, volume or timed flow. Containers are automatically positioned under the feed on a conveyor or in a set of grippers. After filling the container is sealed as part of the continuous packaging process. Viscous or liquid products are normally pumped via feed pipes and nozzles into containers which are capped, lidded or sealed.  

RPA in secondary packaging

Secondary packaging makes goods ready for onward transportation and storage. It frequently involves grouping products together in cartons or trays, and sealing the packs with tape or film to protect the contents from damage and pilfering. The packs can then be labelled with full details of contents and requisite information for logistics personnel such as product codes, dates of packing and consignment details.

The role of RPA is to complete the packaging workflow with automated processes which pick and place goods in the secondary packaging, and to automate sealing and labelling. Finished packs generally exit the packing line by conveyors and are placed on pallets by robotic arms or manually. Stacked pallets can then be wrapped to form a single, secure unit ready for transport or storage. 

Does RPA involve human staff? 

For fully automated workflows, controls and equipment can provide an end to end solution. However, in many cases it is advantageous to involve human staff to supervise the smooth running of the machinery, and to provide visual quality checks in addition to automated inspection. 

At any point in an end to end process, tasks can be handled by people. Automated equipment has clear advantages for repetitive tasks in terms of speed, accuracy and continual operation, but staff can spot defects and imperfections which only the well-trained human eye can detect. Humans are also hugely flexible and adaptable, and can deal with irregular or unpredictable occurrences within a workflow speedily and effectively. 

How does RPA work in processing and manufacturing? 

The role of RPA in processing and manufacturing mirrors the way controls and automation are used in packaging. Workflows in processing are usually based on the transformation of materials, and manufacturing has the further issue of assembly of parts. In all cases programmable controls can be set for the appropriate workflow, and robots, or human staff, can be employed to perform the required tasks.  

The fact that computerised controls are in place allows RPA to deliver supporting documentation and records at speed accelerates time to market, and the precision and accuracy of robotic working ensures a high level of quality and output. The advantages of RPA cut across virtually all types of large scale processing and manufacturing, as well as packaging.

How does RPA work in logistics and warehousing? 

As in other applications of RPA, logistics and warehousing managers and staff can benefit from the immediacy and accuracy of computer generated reporting covering order fulfilment, inventory status, transport management, regulatory compliance and more. 

The integration of robotics in the workflow includes the use of autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) within warehouses and other areas, without the need for staff to manage trolleys, pallet forks and fork lift trucks. With automated lifting robots as a further asset, warehouses can be run safely with exceptional efficiency and without the need for rest breaks and downtime.     

RPA FAQs

What is robotic process automation in simple terms?

RPA is the use of programmable controls to perform repetitive tasks accurately and at speed. In the packaging, processing and manufacturing sectors it involves the use of various types of robot to perform a range of handling, lifting and moving functions. 

What is RPA used for?

RPA is most frequently used to describe the role of computer programmes to perform repetitive data based tasks in areas such as banking, insurance, retail and healthcare. 

RPA is also used for data processing and robotic controls in physical workspaces such as manufacturing, warehousing and packaging. By integrating programmable controls with various types of robots, organisations are able to set up and change workflows and a full range of reporting for multiple business and regulatory needs. 

How do human staff work with RPA?

RPA relieves staff from repetitive tasks, and research shows that workers who have the benefits of robotic automation have significantly higher morale than those who do not. 

Many organisations are going through digital transformation, with technology playing an ever more important role in virtually all aspects of the work environment. The result is that fewer staff are required for the tasks taken up by computer processing and robots. Organisations have the choice of reducing their headcount and saving costs, or of redeploying their teams in other productive activities to drive future growth.  

Can RPA work with existing systems?

RPA integration with legacy systems is very achievable thanks to the use of open systems architecture which allows developers a huge amount of flexibility in their approach to designing systems for a multitude of different businesses. Over time, the advantages of RPA are likely to see its presence in the workplace increase, especially in businesses committed to building their future on advanced digital technology.  

Find Robotics and RPA suppliers with PPMA Group

See a full list of PPMA Member companies who supply robotic solutions for packaging, processing and manufacturing businesses which specialise in Robot IntegratorsRobot SystemsRobotic HandlingRobotics and Programming, and Robots.