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4 minute read • published in partnership with KUKA

Feature: How KUKA & WestRock Linkx deliver packaging automation solutions

KUKA work closely with selected partners from across the UK within several industry sectors, each adept in their field. From system partners to integrators, these proven experts allow KUKA to provide a multi-disciplinary service to our customers. With excellent product knowledge and applications expertise, KUKA partners provide industry-specific know-how to a wide range of end-users.

One of those system partners and industry experts is WestRock Linkx Systems Ltd. specialists in factory and warehouse packing automation.

The Suffolk based firm, design and manufacture packaging automation machinery for transit, shelf-ready and retail-ready FMCG packaging applications, ranging from single order dispatch systems to fully integrated warehouse dispatch packaging automation.

KUKA & WestRock Linkx have partnered for over 7 years to provide packaging automation support to the manufacturing sector / Picture: KUKA


Having been a KUKA system partner for over seven years, Tom Whatling from WestRock Linkx Systems explains the partnership and what can be delivered to manufacturing businesses when it integrates robotics into a production line, the experience that can be afforded through partnering with a KUKA system partner and, how advancements in technology are redefining how they approach a project.

What are the benefits afforded by going through an integrator, as opposed to direct to a robot manufacturer?

As a long term KUKA system partner, I would suggest that using a reputable integrator is always recommended. We can provide invaluable guidance and experience gained from previous installations. Our standard machines and design services will help ensure that the correct robotic solution is selected for the application in question. We can fully integrate the robot into a system that includes the design and manufacture of end of arm tooling, or grippers as they are commonly referred to, as required. Our comprehensive service includes programming, integration and testing.

Most importantly we ensure that systems are safe before they are fully integrated into a customer’s production line, compliant with ISO12100:21010 general principles for design and risk assessment and, subsequent standards including ISO 10218-1. We are a KUKA system partner for just that reason, we have unequivocal experience in our field. 

What technology supports a robotic installation, from WestRock Linkx?

Mechanical interface is checked using 3D computer aided design packages – We (WestRock Linkx) check the working envelope of a robot meets the needs of the machine. We can then produce simulations of all motion, using KUKA SIM PRO 3 software (simulation and offline programming tool).

Robot code can then be produced directly from the simulation package to the physical machine, thus saving time in commissioning.

Virtual systems now exist that allow us to create virtual assets – digital twins. When a digital twin of a machine is produced, we can carry out certain testing and design/commissioning tasks in the digital world before the actual machine is commissioned. Cloud-based systems thereafter, allow us to harvest data from the running machine can be fed back via the cloud and provide real-time data and trends that allow us to better monitor the efficiency and status of our robotic equipment.

Electrical integration would typically be via a communication network to the main cell PLC (programmable logic controller). Packaging machines and cells can be complex, so we run the main cell from a PLC and communicate to the robot by a communications protocol defined by the PLC. Typically ethernet/IP (industrial protocol) or ProfiNet (an industry technical standard for data communication over industrial ethernet). When the SafeOperation add-on is utilised (which is standard for us in non-agilis robots) we can communicate all the safety signals and safety zones via CIP/Safety and ProfiSafe directly to a safety-enabled PLC.

How does this technology make integration easier?

Communications with robots, including the safety aspects, are now done via Ethernet/IP with CIP/Safety or ProfiSAFE networks. This enables us to get a process automation system up and running quickly, safely and efficiently.

Can you give some examples of how technology, such as vision systems, are used at WestRock Linkx?

Vision systems are integral to many of our applications. They provide us with critical 3D co-ordinates, particularly useful when used in conjunction with an automated robotic cell. We can complete complex bin part and material picking from storage systems, especially where the material may not be in a fixed position or orientation. We anticipate vision systems to be implemented as standard within our industry in increasing numbers over the next few years.

Are ‘off the shelf’ robots as quick and easy to set up and operate as they claim to be? Are there any limitations?

There are units available on the market today, which are claimed to be ‘plug and play’. Realistically, however, integrating these robots into machines and/or cells requires a bit more than some people expect, to ensure that the machines are both safe and, they perform the task they were intended to. Considerations such as end of arm tooling that require a risk assessment etc. to make sure we meet the requirements of PUWER (Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998) and the machinery directive. You can purchase a naked robot, tough without the right programming, interfaces, controllers etc. the integration/merging of a robot, peripherals, and any manufacturing machinery into a production system, that then functions as a single cell, simply cannot be achieved.

And finally, if a customer requires a process to become fully automated and, is not familiar with the complexity of automating tasks with robots, what should they do?

 In the first instance reach out to us, or KUKA. Sometimes even the most complicated processes can be simplified by using automated robotics. Customers want to achieve different things; increased productivity, improved quality output, achieve cost savings etc. but the key, is to work with a professional integrator, with industry-specific knowledge and experience.