Robots in the Bindery. Why Not?
Why not? Robots are best at performing repetitive tasks that ordinarily would be performed manually by people. Stacking pallets, cartoning, loading perfect binders by hand. They are really good at these tasks. They are more precise and consistent than most of us and they never ask for a break. That consistency improves production and relieves operators from the repetitiveness and strain associated with these operations.
Lots of palletizers have been sold since their introduction in the ’90s, when they were the forefront of robotic technology in the printing industry. They were fast, and capable of turning out perfectly stacked pallets of books. During the last drupa (2016) I was only able to tour a limited number of exhibits, but I did get to see some real robotic technology, as well as some new and interesting concepts in material handling.
In The Netherlands, a system called “The Book Factory” was installed at a book printer. It consisted of multiple intelligent conveyor lanes with material carriers that could be automatically routed to the correct finishing station (perfect binding, sewing, PUR binding) by simply scanning a product barcode prior to placing the book block on the carrier. The same carriers would take the finished product to quality control and shipping after the finishing process.
Guillotine cutters have been highly automated, with robotic technology that will lift, press and move paper stacks through the cutting process. The fact that most of the “heavy lifting” occurs in finishing has attracted industrial robotics developers who see the opportunities. Robots are not a sure thing, however. There are many considerations. Safety is one. Industrial robotic systems need adequate guarding to prevent potential injury to their human partners. That guarding may take up a lot of physical space. Flexibility is another. How easily they can “learn” new tasks and, finally, there is the upfront cost.
But the potential is there. I was cruising through my email this weekend and I noticed one from a French firm called RECMI. They specialize in material handling, cartoning, palletizing, etc. I hit the video link and was amazed that a good portion showed the handling of printed books and other print media. The book portion of the video begins at :55 seconds, and some of the packing operations are pretty amazing. Enjoy!