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Handling potatoes for Morrisons

28 October 2019

Morrisons fresh produce depot in Rushden has installed two automated crate loading potato cells to ensure greater productivity and efficiency. The robot arms are able to correctly present packs quicker than a human being. 

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Believed to be Europe’s first single pick potato packing cell, the UniPaker robotic pick and place cell was engineered by Brillopak in collaboration with Morrison’s Rushden team. Designed to improve product handling, minimise waste and enhance the presentation of pre-packed potatoes, the robot was required to gently position and load vertical form fill and seal (VFFS) and flow wrap bags into retail crates.

At speeds of at least 75 packs per minute for each cell, the two UniPaker systems cradle a variety of different bags of potatoes – which can weigh between 0.5kg and 2.5kg – loading one at a time into crates, following multiple sets of presentation formats. The installation, which forms part of a warehouse-wide efficiency improvement investment, has resulted in a 90% reduction of labour. 

The UniPaker case loading cells house two high-payload Omron Delta robots. Working simultaneously alongside each other, the robotic spider arms load potato packs individually into crates in set patterns at the programmed orientation. 

Clean, empty crates are fed automatically into both cells at a constant pace by two Brillopak Crate DeStaker systems. Once filled, the crates are stacked and palletised by an end-of-line robotic system.

Likened to a glove, the end effector was designed to allow it to load Morrisons entire potato product range, which exceeds 14 SKUs in a typical season - without the need to swap tooling.

Commenting on the solution, Andy Day, site manager at Rushden, said: “With the level of air that’s in potato bags it was hard to conceive that a robot hand could load crates at such speed without popping or piercing the bag and damaging product.”

Previously, pierced bags were one of the downsides to using grippers on automated case loading systems. Additionally, when layer picking grippers or bomb bay doors release potatoes into trays, they are typically dropped in a haphazard way above each tray in order for the tooling to have space to open. Not only does this damage the product, the presentation is quite hit and miss.

“Suctioning polybags of heavier potatoes with varied shapes is equally challenging. Because it’s not a smooth surface, bags frequently sag and drop onto the packing conveyor, causing the packing line to stop. These frequent line stops have a significant impact on line efficiency and ultimately bottom line profit,” said David Jahn, director at Brillopak. Rather than using stainless steel, which would add to the weight being repeatedly lifted, Brillopak designed the end-effector using soft food-grade material.

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