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Automation offers packing productivity gains

20 November 2020

A complete end-of-line automation project has seen Adrian Scripps, Tesco’s top apple supplier, triple its productivity per head. Find out how this has been achieved. 

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The project saw Brillopak install two PAKStations, four UniPAKer robotic crate packing systems, four Crate DESTAKers, two bale arm closers, four vertical accumulation units and three robotic palletisers. Thanks to this investment, 

Adrian Scripps, the UK’s largest exporter of apples, has tripled productivity from 2.5 - 5 packs to 15 packs per person per min thanks to the implementing of automated solutions which have enabled the packing hall to align its capacity with increased fruit production.  

“Any equipment investments in our packing house have to stack up against investments in our orchards,” said James Simpson, managing director of Adrian Scripps. “In our sector it has been difficult to automate – you might assume that apples flow easily because they are round, but they don’t…and pears are even more awkward, so there are considerable handling challenges to overcome. But we have invested significantly in automation so that we can pack apples more efficiently and it is paying dividends; our productivity per person has been accelerated by robotics.”

While all its apples are still hand-picked, the company’s sorting operation has been automated for over 30 years. Here, fruit is transported through a pre-sizing machine in water channels; letting the apples float like this protects them from bumps, bruising and damage that may result from over-handling. Imaging technology checks the colour, sugar content, internal quality, size and shape of each individual apple, identifying any blemishes and imperfections. Apples are then graded by weight, quality etc. Same category fruit are packed into 300kg plastic crates and transferred to the packaging operation, which means that the packaging operation is presented with a uniform product that has already been sorted and graded.” 

It is the packaging process that has been the company’s focus for automation in the last eight years, initially with the aim of reducing handling through a linear automated process. 

Historically, apples were sold either loose in moulded fibre trays or in plastic bags with a neck tie. Both packing operations were manual, and packing staff worked at a rate of 2.5-5 packs per minute (ppm) on average. 

In 2013, Adrian Scripps set out to invest in automated flow wrapping equipment, to accelerate the speed of the packaging operation. “This left us with lots of packs coming off the flow wrapper at speed, creating a very repetitive task – that was when we engaged Brillopak, who had experience in automation in FMCGs for the grocery trade,” explained Simpson. 

David Jahn, director at Brillopak, takes up the story: “Up to three people were trying to manually pack flow wrapped apples into retail crates at a rate of up to 60 per minute per line. The packing operatives couldn’t consistently keep up with the pace, which meant upstream efficiency improvements from their grading and flow-wrap investments were impacted,” recalls. 

Brillopak’s engineers designed a semi-automated version of the traditional ‘Lazy Susan’ style packing station, which, later branded the PAKStation, went on to become one of its best-selling packaging solutions. The ergonomic system, which helps manual staff load packs of fresh produce into retail crates, has enhanced productivity at more than 12 UK fresh produce packhouses to date.

“The PAKStation has made the entire process easier for the person packing. Historically, packs were presented to packing staff on a Lazy Susan rotary table, which allows a large area for crates to accumulate. We wanted a solution whereby crates were presented to the operator without accumulation, so that the pace of packing is dictated by the machine rather than people,” said Simpson. 

The PAKStation gave Adrian Scripps a flexible semi-automated solution on two of its four lines. However, with the vast majority of the company’s production in one single format, and volumes increasing year on year, it wasn’t long before Adrian Scripps was ready for the next automation chapter – upgrading its other two lines to a fully automated workflow and installing two new packing and palletising lines to meet demand due to its increased orchard productivity measures. 

The company considered other packing systems, but it was the inherent flexibility of the UniPAKer robotic crate packing solution convinced Adrian Scripps to partner Brillopak on this project. 

“We looked at mechanical systems where the pack is turned to orientate it, but the flexibility of the UniPAKer won us over – it is infinitely programmable and allows you to make very small adjustments to get the pack to the exact target location,” continued Simpson. 

Each of the four UniPAKer crate loading cells houses two delta type robots, each performing a single pick. The benefit of a single pick is that it eliminates the need for accumulation. To maximise packing speed, the crate is dynamically loaded as it is moving;  working alongside each other, the robots take it in turn to partially fill the crate, picking individual packs off the infeed conveyor and positioning them deftly and precisely in the crate at the programmed orientation. The robots perform this task with a degree of dexterity and rotation that would not be feasible with a layer-based automated handling system.

Brillopak has overcome the challenge of handling delicate products through innovative end-effector design, combined with in-depth knowledge of motion control and robotics.

Labour reductions
Reducing the amount of labour on a line requires additional controls at certain locations. At Adrian Scripps, after the packed crates leave the UniPAKer, they converge onto a single conveyor and pass through a bale arm closer. “If the bale arm is broken or out of position, the crate won’t stack properly on a pallet. In an automated workflow, you can’t afford to compromise efficiency or stack stability with crates that aren’t intact,” explained Jahn.

On the bale arm closer, fingers push the plastic bale arm into closed position; four cylinders then come down and apply pressure. If there is no resistant force, this means the arm is broken or out of position.

Each line also incorporates a vertical accumulation unit just before the entrance to the palletiser. When there is a pallet changeover, instead of crates passing straight from the UniPAKer to the palletiser, the accumulation system lifts them vertically upwards. When the palletising robot is ready to accept its next load, it lowers the crates back down onto the track. 

The final element of the project was the palletising operation. Brillopak supplied three compact robotic cell palletisers capable of operating at a rate of up to 30 crates per minute. 

Empty pallets are delivered via handtruck to the inbuilt pallet dispenser, which automatically feeds them to the machine for presentation to the articulated robot. The system then automatically places the loaded pallet stack onto the floor to be taken away by a handtruck. 

To maximise efficiency, all the machines in the workflow communicate with one another via sensors and a common control platform. 

Today Adrian Scripps has a fully automated crate packing operation with six packing lines each capable of running at up to 75 ppm, giving the company the capacity uplift it needed. 

Unlike many automation projects in the produce industry, automation adoption by the company was not about reducing manual labour, but about reducing cost per head “Reduction of labour is a consideration, but it is productivity per person that we are really interested in,” said Simpson. “Thanks to our investment in automation, this is considerably higher than it was. In 2013, we were working at 2.5-5 packs per person per minute. Now we are working at 15 packs per person per minute. That is a threefold increase.”

The packing facility employs 55-60 staff – and even though throughput has tripled this figure hasn’t changed in many years, which clearly demonstrates the effectiveness of this approach. 

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