Robotic Industry Automation at its Finest

Columbia/Okura LLC
Written by Jessica Ferlaino

Columbia/Okura LLC has a lot to celebrate! Marking twenty successful years in operation, Columbia/Okura is embarking on the installation of its seven hundredth robotic palletizer in the North American market. With a reputation for quality and world-class service and support, Columbia/Okura has established itself as the premier manufacturer of robotic palletizing solutions in North America.
Columbia/Okura is jointly owned by Columbia Machine Inc. and Japan-based Okura Yusoki Co., Ltd.: two of the industry leading material handling companies in the world. At its Vancouver, Washington facility, Columbia/Okura designs, manufactures, integrates, installs and services customized robotic palletizers for clients from a wide range of industries. Palletizers are machines that automatically stack products or packages of products onto a pallet.

Columbia Machine pioneered the floor level palletizer in 1962, which laid the foundation for decades of palletizing innovation and success. In 1983, Okura Yusoki was the first to develop, manufacture, integrate and install a multi-articulated palletizing robot system. Since then, Okura has integrated and installed thousands of these state-of-the-art robot systems.

Taking advantage of the experience and long-standing history of its parent companies, Columbia/Okura reinforces established reputations for exceptional customer service, unsurpassed attention to detail and timely, on-budget robotic palletizing solutions.

Columbia/Okura draws from each parent company’s complementary offerings and builds on the successes and shared cultures. Columbia/Okura takes Columbia Machine’s material handling experience and marries it to Okura’s renowned robotic palletizing to achieve its own market successes.

“We’ve benefited from the technology of both of the Members,” Brian Hutton, president of Columbia/Okura, said. “From a palletizing perspective, there is a lot of expertise that goes back and is attributed to the members. We’ve picked that up and moved it forward.”

Its customized, flexible robotic palletizing solutions are designed to fit client-specific floor layouts, workflows and products. Columbia/Okura serves the food and beverage, consumer products, building materials, chemical and agricultural products sectors. Columbia/Okura can increase a client’s efficiency and productivity while improving work environments for employees.

“One of the things that the robots help with is ergonomic injuries to clients. Most of the things that we palletize are industrial goods. They are heavy products. They are palletized at high rates of speed, and those are the types of things that can cause repetitive motion injuries with employees.” Palletizers often operate within hot, dusty and unfriendly environments.

The adoption and integration of one of Columbia Okura’s many robotic palletizing applications can help clients’ facilities operate at peak performance. Its expert bag palletizing system offers a high-speed option and can palletize up to twenty-eight bags per minute.

Case palletizing robots can accommodate cases of variable sizes, with the ability to simultaneously palletize products from up to four production lines, without time lost to changing over from one to the other, using Columbia/Okura’s proprietary end effectors.

Columbia Okura’s customizable solutions can meet almost any facility’s needs to flexibly handle a variety of product styles and sizes at any speed or budget. The company’s pail palletizing system can adapt to a variety of pail sizes without changing tools. Additionally, robotic depalletizing systems save clients time, money and effort in unloading cases, bags, bundles and pails.

“One of the things that helps differentiate us from other integrators is that we design our end of arm tools,” Hutton explained. “Those tools are basically custom-applied to the needs of the clients’ products, as typically robots are going into existing spaces. People are trying to get the maximum productivity out of the space that they already have, and the robots tend to allow us to shoehorn them into those smaller spaces.”

Standard end effectors fit with all of Columbia/Okura’s robot palletizers and are designed to manage bundles, cases, crates, bags, pails, bales, totes and sheets. “We carry well over a million dollars in spare parts inventory, just to make sure that if a client goes down and they don’t have a part in their own inventory, there’s really nothing that we can’t get them within twenty-four hours,” stated Hutton. It provides efficient and effective service and support to ensure its clients’ time is not lost to stoppages.

Columbia/Okura’s easy-to-use software helps clients create and modify custom palletizing patterns. Each robotic palletizer is equipped with detailed graphics, simple navigation tools and complete system integration services to ensure that clients are pleased with their robotic palletizer’s performance.

The company is committed to its client’s operational efficiency from concept and design to integration, installation, service and support. Most robotic palletizers are upgradeable and will remain viable within a client’s growing business and changing facility needs.

Columbia/Okura has a dedicated system in-house for customer training and demos. “We’re not unique in it, but we certainly promote it more than many,” explained Sales Manager Mike Stuyvesant. “As a custom robotic integrator, we assemble all of our systems in our factory. We really manage the customer’s risk by not doing any setup in their facility until the system has been completely set up, run-in and proven here using products that they have supplied to us.”

Palletizing systems are shipped to the client’s facility only after the clients themselves have signed off on the system and undergone training. Columbia/Okura runs a full factory acceptance test in-house, using real products to verify speeds, patterns, and load quality. Its facility was recently expanded to better accommodate increased demand.

Columbia/Okura is a member of the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). Their robots are compliant with UL1740 – the standard for robots and robotic equipment. It is also a custom controls manufacturer with a UL508 (industrial control equipment) approved panel shop.

Columbia/Okura’s well-trained service staff further contributes to its overall quality performance and output. “We have factory-trained field service technicians. We commission every single one of our systems with our people, and after the commissioning has taken place, we have factory-trained support systems. We retain staff on site here and provide 24/7 tech support,” Hutton explained. The service staff is located in every time zone to provide preventative maintenance and to swiftly respond to service calls. Columbia Okura offers round the clock parts and service support. Remote computer support is available during normal hours, if necessary.

In addition to its own staff, Columbia/Okura has a longstanding and respected network of independent sales representatives who actively promote the benefits of robotic palletization. “We have been extremely fortunate to have forged solid partnerships with some of the best packaging equipment companies in the markets we serve,” said Stuyvesant. “Those partnerships will be paramount to our success as we continue to grow.”

“One of the things that we pride ourselves on is coming up with the right layout for the application, the right tooling for the application and to do that in a cost-effective and timely way,” Hutton added. “We have good technical talent, good service talent, just good talent overall.”

There is a great deal of loyalty and longevity in the ranks at Columbia/Okura. SAE Manager Dick Sampson was the company’s first employee and has served forty years between Columbia Machine and Columbia/Okura. Engineering Manager Dean Ehnes was one of the very first technical members of Columbia/Okura’s team and has been a major contributor to the company’s great store of knowledge and experience.

The company’s commitment to, and reputation for, quality products has helped it to expand its market presence, both in North America and abroad. “Our customers’ experience with our equipment and their satisfaction with us has brought us into foreign countries that are outside of our home market,” shared Hutton. “We’re not actively looking to expand our presence into Europe or China or South Africa, but we do have robots in all four corners of the world.”

The bulk of the company’s efforts remain focused on the Western Hemisphere. “We believe that is our target territory, and so as far as growth, we are pushing Mexico, Central and South America as the new pioneering territories for us.”

Columbia/Okura is taking full advantage of the changing regulatory environments in these emerging countries, and the timing is right for expansion. There is a greater demand in these growing regions for mass-produced food, beverages and consumer products, which represent Columbia/Okura’s largest market segments. The need for robotic palletizing in these industries is significant.

“A lot of those regulatory changes are benefitting us and making our equipment more plausible and more affordable.” As the business continues to grow, Columbia/Okura is finding new ways to expand its existing abilities and market reach without duplication.

As robotic systems are becoming increasingly accepted in the palletizing market and beyond, business is increasing for Columbia/Okura. “We’re going to be very strategic in the way that we go about growing the business,” Stuyvesant explained. “I think the sky is the limit, and we’re excited about what the next three to five years will bring.”



To Make a Northwest Passage

Read Our Current Issue


From Here to There

April 2024

Peace of Mind

March 2024

Making the Smart Grid Smarter

February 2024

More Past Editions

Featured Articles