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Robots help increase productivity

31 May 2016

The need to handle more products with faster changeover times, and to package products into a wider variety of different formats, makes the good case for the greater use of robots within in the food sector. Food Processing reports. 

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Throughput, quality, availability and the flexibility to work with different product variants or pack sizes, without traditionally lengthy line changeover times, are all factors that can impact the bottom line in the food industry and are issues that can be addressed through the use of robots – which can help deliver flexibility while boosting productivity through higher speed operation and improved availability. 

Within the food sector packaging now accounts for over 40% of production costs. With rising labour costs, frequent sick leaves resulting from the repetitive motion of loading and unloading, and the cost of complying with ever more stringent hygiene regulations it is worth noting that robots can help increase productivity in nearly all areas of application, reduce costs and play a key role in increased competitiveness. KUKA, for example can provide tailor-made solutions to carry out the loading and unloading of packaging machines, as well as cartoning, labelling, palletising and order picking.

A good example can be found at Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck where KUKA robots are employed to unpack bottles. The wide variety of bottle formats, storage requirements and different production methods meant that a simple manipulator would not have been able to handle such as task so a robot cell, based around a shelf-mounted KUKA QUANTEC K robot, was developed to remove champagne bottles from crates and place them on a conveyor belt which transports them through the different  packaging steps.

Commenting on the important role that robots can play in the food and beverage sector, John Rainer, FANUC UK’s regional sales manager said: “Robots can help eliminate workforce injuries, especially on tasks such as palletising which are repetitive and arduous. Equally, you need to keep operatives safe, and there are many types of technologies and safety concepts available today that can be deployed within the working envelope when automating a task.” 

Swiss food manufacturer Herohas installed three six-axis robots with customised grippers to handle the heavy and labour intensive task of palletising its jams and preserves around the clock. Previously, this back breaking and tedious task was undertaken undertaken by five members of staff until three FANUC M-710iC robots, with a payload of 70kg, took over the duty.

To help increase productivity, the robots pick up two boxes already packed with jam simultaneously, turning towards the pallet and setting down the boxes with millimetre precision on the pallet according to the programmed stacking scheme. Because the jam is packed in a variety of different containers the grippers needed to be customised to accommodate different box weights.

Rather than installing an overly complex touchscreen, an intuitive control panel, with fewer buttons, was created to assist Hero’s international workforce. Operators do not need to select or change programmes on the robots. In addition, universally recognised colour codes – red button for stop and green for start – were adopted.

The design did not employ any vision technology so the stainless steel gripper technology had to be customised so that the end tooling stayed the same, regardless of the size or weight of box being manoeuvred by the robots. 

Gripper design
When designing the gripper it was necessary to factor in the different box weights, the centrifugal force of the fast pivoting movement from the conveyor towards the pallet and also to control how foil packs still warm from the production line might behave when gripped. When the jam temperature transfers onto the foil, a box can become slippery during the gripping and transport process potentially resulting in a crooked stack which would need re-palletising. 

 “The Hero jam palletising application is a typical caged solution,” said Rainer. “However, there is a wide range of reliable, approved software based safety systems available to manufacturers today that have the potential to optimise productivity by providing faster, easier access to the robot working area, reducing any potential downtime.” 

Bakery robot
Swiss confectioner Suteria Chocolata is using robots to help produce its famous Solothurner Torte to help it keep up with varying demand while ensuring the product is always freshly prepared. 

When required, a FANUC LR Mate robot is able to undertake the intricate yet monotonous task of piping perfectly sized hazelnut meringue rounds, to decorate the top and bottom of each torte. 

Each day, the bakery prepares a selection of the Solothurner Torte in six sizes, measuring between 12 cm and 26 cm in diameter. The robot, which has a reach of around 700 mm and a payload of 5kg, pipes the meringue mixture from an injection nozzle in a circular motion directly onto baking trays. An operative fills the dispensing unit, provides a stack of trays, selects the appropriate size on a touchscreen and then leaves the robot to create the meringue bases and decorative tops. 

The fragile nature of the meringue mixture means that it cannot be processed at high pressure and where air bubbles form it can lead to flaws, so operatives occasionally need to step in and take corrective measures. When each baking tray is full, it is removed from the cell by an operative and placed into the oven where it is baked. An empty tray is then pulled from a stack into the robot cell.

"If you can combine the traditional craftsmanship with the use of the robot, yet still remain unique with your product, then there are compelling reasons to automate," said Michael Brüderli CEO at Suteria Chocolata. 

Many OEMs to the food industry are also now looking at the use of robots withi their designs. Newtech, for example has employed a robot into its latest ultrasonic cutting machine for the bakery industry. The result is an machine that is able to cut cakes to high levels of precision, working flexibly for different portion sizes and quantities, and eliminating product waste from damaged product.

Cakes are notoriously difficult to cut reliably – machines tend to be time consuming to set up for different cake sizes, depths and portion numbers, while traditional cutting technologies can result in uneven, messy cuts and unacceptable levels of damaged product.

With a new machine design, Newtech set out to overcome these limitations by combining ultrasonic cutting with robotic actuation of the cutting blade. For an out-of-the-box solution which would be easy to integrate into the machine, Newtech turned to Mitsubishi Electric.

The result was a solution built around an RF13 13kg payload, six-axis robot, mounted within a stainless steel cell. One of the fastest robots in its class, the RF13 is also highly dextrous, and is able to reach all the way behind itself and also very close to its base, giving a highly flexible and compact working area.

The robot is controlled via the Mitsubishi Electric iQ Platform, a multi-functional automation environment which incorporates Q series PLC control and an integrated robot controller within the same rack. This has removed the need for a network connection to a traditional external robot controller, which means that communication exchange between the PLC CPU and the robot controller is handled across the rack, increasing speed, data throughput and reducing robot setup times. 

A CC-Link network is used to connect other machine control components and a dedicated Mitsubishi Electric WS safety controller provides a totally integrated machine control solution. 

A Mitsubishi Electric GOT2000 HMI provides a user interface to allow operators to select different cake recipes and set parameters such as product height, portion size, total number of portions and trim size.

The result of the robot integration is Newtech’s robo range of machines, that offer flexibility for cake portioning within the bakery industry. The in-line format machine provides a compact, multi-product platform. The high-speed ultrasonic blade offers precision, clean cutting as standard, even on detailed cake products. 

In operation, a through-conveyor indexes product in and out of the machine, from left to right. Product is fed into the machine in standard size bakery industry aluminium trays.  A series of inductive sensors identify the tray size and ensure that it is in the right position in the machine cell, whereupon the tray is fixed and held in a precise position by a series of clamps. 

Once the tray is in position, the robot actuates the ultrasonic blade to portion the product based on the parameters entered on the HMI. During the cutting process, another tray can be loaded onto the conveyor, and once the cutting cycle is complete the next tray is indexed into the cell.

The machine is also capable of cutting products in smaller foil trays. The foils are placed in a row of three on a nested product board. The same clamp arrangement is used for accurate positioning. The robot automatically selects a blade – purposely profiled to fit within the shape of the foil tray – via an automatic head change unit.

A cleaning tank has been included in the machine to wash the ultrasonic blade. During the cleaning cycle, the robot takes the relevant blade to the cleaning tank, and a series of water jets spray both sides of the blade which is then dried as the robot passes it through an air blast.

As this article demonstrates, robot technology is finding increasing applications in the food and beverage sectors. While the UK still lags behind many other countries in its uptake of robots and the global food sector is still well behind many other industry sectors in its adoption or robots, the potential for this sector is huge. As robot and human collaboration becomes more common, with technology now enabling robots and humans to share the same space, it is vital to look at robots as a way to help achieve the ever increasing productivity and efficiency targets that are being set. A study conducted by the Copenhagen Business School titled ‘Automation, labor productivity and employment – a cross country comparison,’ found that if the UK were to match the most automated countries, productivity could increase by 22.3%. Certainly worth thinking about!

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