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Picking out the quality

14 December 2015

Food Processing looks at how pick and place solutions can improve production output for food manufacturers while still ensuring high levels of quality. Within the food industry, the packing of meat, poultry, ready meals and other products into trays has been transformed in recent years, thanks to the introduction of automated systems for the weighing, filling, sealing, checkweighing and labelling of the trays. 

In the highly competitive markets of fresh products, the increase in line speeds and overall throughput has been a valuable benefit. But one persistent stumbling block to maximising these speeds has been the process of placing the packed trays into cartons or crates, which remained a manual operation for many years.

“What we have seen more recently has been the advent of the more sophisticated and capable automated pick and place systems that are now able to match the speeds of the rest of the line,” says Torsten Giese, Marketing Manager PR and Exhibitions at Ishida Europe. “The latest systems are also more flexible in the trays they can handle, and this is an important benefit as retailer demands and the need for brand differentiation has seen the introduction of a variety of different tray sizes and designs.”

Pick and place applications comprise both primary handling – putting individual pieces of product into a tray or carton, and case packing. In recent years, both areas have been a fertile ground for development.

Pick and place systems are now able to adjust to different types of carton designs, for example being able to push trays under the lip of a carton to maximise the use of space, or change the orientation of the trays during stacking. This helps to maximise pallet loads for more efficient transportation.

“For food manufacturers, the advent of these systems has enabled them to respond more quickly to customer requirements and requests,” says Giese. “It has also aided more efficient production planning, enabling trays to be filled and packed quickly and sent for storage, to be ready for immediate call-off as and when required. In addition, the arrival of automated pick and place systems has had implications for the rest of the packing line. For example, subsequent end of line operations such as carton or crate labelling, checkweighing and palletising have also become automated.”

In addition, operators who in the past would have carried out visual quality inspections of packs are no longer available and this has driven the need for the introduction of new quality control systems, such as x-ray inspection, vision systems and leak detectors. 

“Such state-of-the-art equipment has enabled manufacturers to implement even higher quality control standards and the equipment is also able to form part of an ERP system that can provide full traceability for all packs leaving the factory,” explains Giese. “All these developments have led to the growth in the design, planning and installation of complete packaging lines, sourced from a single supplier where all pieces of equipment are fully integrated with each other and therefore able to operate at maximum speed and efficiency.”

Tipping point
“Until recently, the use of robots for pick and pack solutions in the food industry were considered to be expensive, complicated, unreliable and inflexible, compared to what a human could do,” says Neil Boyd, Sales Director at Kensal Handling Systems. “However, as of late, the food sector is becoming one of the biggest purchasers’ of robots by sector, with picking, packing and palletising applications making up the bulk of robotic applications. The matter of human versus machine is a long-standing conundrum. We are now reaching a tipping point where the true potential of a robot is being widely recognised.”

Robotics plays a major role in boosting production capacity, while providing substantial cost savings. They are a huge benefit for processors who suffer from labour retention within the food industry as they can handle the repetitive nature of tasks and avoid the potential injuries associated with the high speed of the production line, which ultimately lowers their costs.

“Inconsistent product quality is the enemy of food and beverage production, as a mistake can easily result in significant cost implications,” says Boyd. “Something as simple as a late delivery could easily persuade customers to look to other suppliers. More serious issues, such as inconsistent quality, could even lead to embarrassing product recalls. Robotics eliminates the threat of contamination, which usually comes from a human source, helping companies in the food industry comply with stringent health and safety standards more easily.”

And with the advancements in vision technology, another regular concern expressed by food producers is addressed. Human quality checks can be improved by adding sight to a robot, aiding quality control.

“In recent years, robotics has seen significant advancement in hygienic and sanitary solutions for food processing and primary packaging applications,” explains Boyd. “Recently, for example, IP69K certified robots were introduced, meeting the toughest of standards. These robots are not only waterproof, but they can also withstand harsh environments, including dust and high pressure cleaning.”

“Efficiency is high on every food manufacturer’s agenda, and supermarkets – particularly the bigger stores – are feeling the shift towards European discounted food retailers,” explains Paul Wilkinson, Business Development Manager of Pacepacker Services. “To help tackle this, many are pledging to lower food prices, which means driving drown manufacturing costs. Automation plays a huge role in increasing everyone’s competitive edge, and is certainly fundamental for Pacepacker’s customers, particularly those manufacturing large volumes of own-branded food.”

One of the critical elements of the automation process of food production is the end of line pick and place and secondary packing.

“Some of the greatest innovations are taking place in this arena, driven by labour efficiency and productivity,” says Wilkinson. “Developments in pick and place end of arm tooling is especially prevalent, providing gentle yet practical handling solutions to increase output and reduce product damage and waste. All these steps help to maintain product quality and avoiding hefty supermarket penalties.”

Increased flexibility in pick and place technology allows manufacturers to opt for multi-use effectors that can perform multiple tasks, resulting in fewer tool changeovers. Many manufacturers now realise that the more tasks their equipment can do, the quicker their return on investment is. 

Vacuum handling has also seen advances in design. In general terms, vacuum allows the pick and place of most items providing the science is right, and the holding force and suction pad diameter have been calculated correctly. There are now hundreds of options for end-effectors to accommodate virtually any product applications. Issues such as post-suction marking on film topped packs or grippers penetrating fruits in netter bags have also been solved by new innovations. 

“An emerging trend in pick and place is to generate mixed product trays,” says Wilkinson. “This is a quickly expanding market driven by tighter retail shelf space and more product variations. As well as reducing handling costs, it helps retailers to manage their stock holding better. For perishable goods, this is especially beneficial for cutting waste by reducing the volume of stock going out of date. To illustrate the demand, orders for mixed trays quadrupled within a year for one dip after changing from swapping products manually to automating the process.”

Improved systems
“A properly researched and engineered solution can bring significant benefits to the user in terms of performance, quality, efficiency, safety and flexibility,” says Barry Graham, Product Marketing Manager at Omron. “Using a Delta or parallel style robot system as an example, a system may comprise not only of the robot itself but a controller, safety, vision and very likely some other associated control requirements such as logic, safety, I/O and additional axes of motion, for example infeed and outfeed conveyors. If the machine builder has to take them from various vendors, using numerous separately developed technologies and communication protocols, then the user could potentially see a lot of risk in this scenario. These risks, however, can be substantially reduced by using a single integrated control platform which incorporates all of the key components required to create a successful robotic pick and place system, including not only the robotics but the logic, motion, vision, safety and system I/O.”

Using two distinct open networks in every controller can be greatly beneficial, Graham says. The first is EtherNet/IP, which is designed for transmitting larger amounts of data between controllers and to enterprise systems, as well as a link to local HMI stations. The second is EtherCAT, which is used as the machine control network because of its fast and deterministic technology, making it ideal for both motion and robotic applications. There are a wide range of controllers available, permitting the user to choose the most suitable product. Some models can control multiple robots with a total of 64 axes of servo available, as well as the aforementioned I/O, inverters, vision and safety.

“An increasingly crucial aspect of any pick and place application is the vision system,” explains Graham. “When a system is required to simply identify the position of a part to be picked from a conveyor, the use of a smart camera vision sensor that not only sits directly on the EtherCAT network but also has a direct input from the conveyor encoder delivers a truly integrated solution. More advanced requirements can also be catered for by vision systems capable of controlling multiple camera inputs – which are also integrated on the same EtherCAT network – but offering higher speed, precision and flexibility.”

Productivity improvements provide machine designers with a continual challenge and the need to integrate more than one robot into a project brings its own complications.  

“To ease integration, system complexity and reduced footprint, single controllers can now handle up to eight Delta robots, depending upon the model used,” says Graham. “Furthermore, the latest software offers the user a single programming environment with integrated configuration, programming, monitoring and simulation of all project tasks. This not only dramatically reduces time and user risk, it helps achieve optimum output levels whilst keeping a tight control over product quality.”

Case study
The last five years have seen considerable growth in the use of robotics in the food industry as producers look to enhance their competitive edge using high speed, accurate and agile systems. These are all the key benefits to a pick and place robot. Recent demands have required robotics companies to consider food safety, using robots to improve hygiene by removing the human element during the manufacturing process. Although IP67K certified robots have been commonplace for years, the very nature of a robot arm with its crevices and less durable construction materials has previously prevented it from working in harsh environments. Technology is now improving to enable robots to withstand the harshest of environments and high pressure water hose cleaning – a common method used in food processing. 

Belgian waffle house Biscuiterie Thijs have adopted pick and place robots in their site in the Flemish province of Herentals, helping to produce thousands of batches of waffles every day. The company supplies European supermarkets such as Aldi, Lidl, Carrefour and Jumbo, so it’s vital that their products arrive on the shelf in the best possible condition.

The company invested in six new M-2iA FANUC delta robots in 2013 to perform the task of picking and packing. As demand was increasingly, the company needed to move towards automation to fulfil their orders, with the six robots packing over 150 more waffles per minute than human hands. And as the robots are wash-down ready, machine operatives at Biscuiterie Thijs can clean the line three times faster than before.

Hygiene was a big factor for Geert Smolders, Assistant Manager at the Belgian facility. “In addition to being more hygienic than humans, these pick and place robots make our line more profitable,” he says. “Packaging such vast quantities is both labour intensive and requires a high level of coordination. With the new FANUC robotic line, we’ve gone from packing 300 waffles a minute to 450. Automating our packing line has significantly improved the quality of our waffles, plus we’ve increased production by over 30%.”

The ceiling-mounted M-2iA robot is compact and dexterous, with a wrist rotation of 3,500 degrees per second that allows it to pick from a conveyor at fast rates. This fluid motion has proven to be especially beneficial for the signature Belgian waffles, which are rounded in shape with a delicate jagged edge. After leaving the refrigeration unit, the waffles had a tendency to stick to one another and when operators tried to intervene to pack them, the fragile edges would break off, increasing waste. Thanks to the application of smart features like iRVision and visual line tracking, it’s a much smoother pick and place process. 

Presented randomly on a two-track conveyor belt, the robot’s vision system visually detects the exact contours of each waffle so each robot receives an equal load and knows instinctively which waffle to go for and where to place it on the packing line. In addition to an overhead camera which feeds information to each robot via the controller, the conveyor belt is illuminated from underneath to further enhance visual production inspection.

One of the more striking features of the installation is the seamless way each camera directs the robotic actions. Connected to the robot controllers, they not only transmit the volume and position of the waffles located on the conveyor, but also divide the waffles among the six robots. “We created a customised software solution whereby the robots communicate fully with the packaging line,” says John Greymans, owner of the Dutch company that commissioned and installed the line. “Opting for a duo pick – where each robot grips two waffles – saves valuable time and further enhances the transfer speed.” The ability to regulate the speed of the pick and place application has also proved beneficial, especially since the robots positioned towards the end of the line have less than a metre to complete their packing task. 

“Overall, the advent of fully integrated and automated packaging lines has helped food manufacturers to improve their operations, enabling them to become even more flexible and able to respond quickly to changing market trends and customer requirements,” says Giese. “Such benefits can lead to a fast payback on the initial investment.”

Food processing automation delivers consistently better quality with less waste, improves picking and handling times and increases output by speeding up packaging processes which, in turn, results in more competitive costs. And more importantly, this automation allows manufacturers to be flexible in their response to today’s competitive market dynamics. While robotics are well known for their ability to yield, lift and shift bulk products, and provide repeatable and consistent pick and placement, they are now also starting to take on other light-touch tasks and delicate duties. With this is mind, it’s clear to see how the use of automated robotics is fast becoming the way forward.

“Accuracy, speed and repeatability are among the many benefits of automating pick and pack lines,” explains Wilkinson. “The shortage and the overhead costs of employing skilled labour continue to be a real challenge for the UK food industry. Manufacturing of the future will become faster and we will need to be more responsive to the changing global markets if we’re to grow our export business. Automating all production processes will be critical to capturing these opportunities and maintaining food quality.”

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