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Automation is key for increasing efficiency

03 July 2016

Suzanne Gill spoke to John Tomlinson, founder of WMH, to find out more about the changes he has seen in the food industry during 40 years as a provider of handling solutions. He founded the company in 1979 to provide an equipment repair services... the company has seen many changes since then! 

Western Mechanical Handling (WMH), a provider of production automation and handling solutions for the food industry, was founded by John Tomlinson in 1976 to provide an equipment repair service. Within a few years the company started to design and build more complex, bespoke mechanical handling systems for its customers and today it employs over 30 skilled designers and engineers to service blue-chip food businesses across the globe.

John Tomlinson has seen many changes over the years. “We spent much of the 1980s and 1990s helping our customers convert their originally manual, hand-crafted batch production lines into continuous in-line processes to allow them to increase productivity.

“In more recent years the food processing sector has been put under increasing pressure to reduce their production costs, which requires a greater focus on efficiency leading to an increased interest in use of automation.

“During the last few years the cost of introducing plant automation has been reduced to a point that makes automation a very affordable solution. We are finding customers are looking to integrate automated control systems into their processes to help them increase productivity, reduce downtime and enable our customers to continue to make their processes more efficient.”

An important consideration for automation projects within the food sector is the equipment needs to be user friendly, often being used by non-skilled operators. Robust construction, attention to ensure equipment meets the relevant hygiene regulations, and long life are all factors that need to be taken into consideration.

A recent project undertaken by WMH, for example, helped a bakery to reduce costs by enabling a single operator to service a packing operation handling over 14,000 products per hour. The system was integrated into an inline freezer loading and unloading system to take a random flow of bread rolls or buns, sort them into three roughly equal lanes then count a set number of pieces into a waiting carton.

Each product lane can be diverted to one of two packing positions to maintain continuous operation and allow for full boxes to be removed and fresh empty boxes to be put in place. A system of coloured lights at each box loading position enables a single operator to service six packing positions. The colour-coded lights at each packing station provide an intuitive prompt for necessary operator interactions with the line.

Rise of robots
The cost of robots has reduced and their capabilities have increased which is leading to their greater adoption. WMH has robot cells at Callington, which, combined with the company’s ability to develop grippers and operate programmes for specific products, demonstrate pick and place and ultrasonic cutting solutions to customers.

“The food sector is always looking for labour saving solutions,” continued Tomlinson. “The use of robotics and increasing automation is spreading through all areas of the food production process. Many customers at our recent open days showed an interest in the potential uses of robots throughout their production processes. The technology is available, the challenge is to translate this into bespoke working applications. However, I think it is inevitable that we will see more robots in food factories in the future.”

WMH is currently strengthening its automation division, refurbishing its main manufacturing workshop and investing in new product development to ensure that the company is in a good position to support its customers for many years to come.

“Automation is the future for the food processing industry,” concludes John Tomlinson. “We need to continue to innovate to provide solutions to help our customers remain competitive in this increasingly automated world.”

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