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Controller makes mass personalisation a reality

18 November, 2021

Omron has developed what it describes as the world’s first automation architecture for personalisation at scale. It says that its Robotic Integrated Controller (RIC) will make made-to-order mass production commercially viable for FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) businesses for the first time.

Using the RIC platform, personalisation activities that could previously only be done by hand and on a limited scale, can now be executed in an automated workflow. Omron says this opens up unprecedented opportunities for the FMCG industry to add value, differentiate their offerings, and enhance consumer experiences.

Consumers can now choose combinations of products, as well as pack formats and sizes. For example, they can specify a selection of cheeses for a cheeseboard, or the items behind each door in an advent calendar. Until now, such products have been expensive because they had to be assembled by hand. The RIC makes automated production of bespoke selections not only feasible, but also cost-effective, says Omron.

The applications are not limited to niche luxury items. The RIC can be linked to online retailers’ ordering platforms, allowing consumers to customise, for example, multi-packs of snacks or yoghurts.

“The RIC redefines ‘flexibility’ in a production context,” says Omron’s UK marketing manager, Dan Rossek. “There are companies who are supplying flexible manufacturing systems, but their definition of flexibility is making changeovers quick and easy to allow small batch production. What we are talking about here is flexibility at a unit level – the ability to make every single product unique.

“There has been a lot of talk about mass personalisation in the past few years,” he adds. “The big brands have all expressed aspirations to offer made-to-order options to their online customers, but there has been no automation solution to turn these ambitions into anything more than discussions. With the development of our Robotic Integrated Controller, the solution has arrived, and we can’t wait to see how the market embraces this opportunity.”

To achieve this level of flexibility, all of the automation elements in a line – from conveyors, motors and drives, to vision systems and robots – need to be synchronised.

Rather than having separate PLCs, motion controllers and robot controllers, the RIC controls everything. Motion, logic, sensing, inspection and robotics are all integrated on a common network, and programmed via common software.

Omron’s Robotic Integrated Controller allows consumers to choose the combination of products, pack formats and sizes that they want. This is being demonstrated at the company’s recently upgraded European Automation Centre in Barcelona.

An entire line can be managed via one interface. Omron predicts that development times for machine-builders will be slashed because the integration of the various elements avoids the need to develop protocols or perform complex programming.

“Essentially, the RIC enables machine-builders to programme the line as a harmonised system rather than programming discrete elements and synchronising them,” Rossek explains. “This level of integration would usually require a prohibitive amount of r&d investment, but because all the different automation elements in our architecture ‘talk the same language’, we have created a plug-and-play control solution that can support any FMCG line.”

To show what the RIC can do, Omron has built a demonstration packaging line at its recently revamped European Automation Centre in Barcelona. The proof-of-concept cell consists of a pick-and-place biscuit application. Customer orders are translated into recipes for a specific combination of biscuits and tray size. The RIC system calls up this recipe, and tells a tray-feeding module to supply the correct tray, a product-feeding module to supply the correct biscuits, and an iX4 robot to place the biscuits into the tray. A vision system checks the quality and verifies that the pack corresponds with the order.

The demo line shows four types of biscuits being placed in different configurations into three different tray sizes at speed, with quality control and traceability. “It is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible with a highly integrated control structure,” says Rossek, “but it proves that mass personalisation is not just a pie-in-the-sky concept but a serious commercial proposition.”

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