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Picking up the pace with automated palletisation cells

19 May 2023

Mindful Chef has automated its Redditch distribution hub with robot-enabled palletisation cells, resulting in a throughput increase of around 30%.

In 2022 the design, manufacture and installation of pick-to-light conveyor lines at Mindful Chef’s distribution hub in Redditch were completed by BH Handling Systems. 

The success of the project led the company quickly to commission BS Handling Systems to deliver phase two of its development plans – an automated palletisation solution at the end of the pick-to-light lines.

“Phase one was designed to increase throughput performance and reduce error rates in the picking process,” explained Matthew Maxwell, Head of Operations at Mindful Chef. “With phase two, the key objectives were to reduce or remove manual handling operations at the end of the lines and further increase throughput speeds.”

Before the first phase one was completed, Mindful Chef had already started thinking about adding more automation to the end of the pick-to-light lines, having achieved a throughput increase of around 30%. However, to cope with the increase required two operators at the end of each line to manually lift the boxes off and palletise them prior to loading into a trailer for despatch.

Due diligence
“As part of our due diligence we visited other sites within the Nestlé group to evaluate their palletising operations. The benefits of automating the palletisation became obvious and so we pushed ahead with phase two of the project,” continued Matthew. Initially, two possible solutions were considered – loading pallets directly into the lorry trailers themselves, or automating the palletisation. After careful consideration, it was decided that loading directly into the trailers wouldn’t give the flexibility needed, so it opted for palletisation automation.

“The first design concepts had just one palletising cell. This had two robots inside the cell with both pick-to-light lines feeding the cell. After the order was placed for the conveyors to feed the cell, we had second thoughts. The space where we were going to locate the cell was very tight and the design had the potential to cause issues for our operators. So, at the eleventh hour, we decided to look at a different approach. Even though we had already committed to the order, BS Handling Systems were open to change throughout the process. Following further analysis we decided to have two automated palletisation cells, one for each pick-to-light line.”

Fitting it all in
To fit them into the available space the feed conveyors were designed to run from the exit of the box closing machine via a 180° bend to come back up parallel to the line before taking a 90° turn into the palletisation cell.

“We have three box sizes in the operation, small, large, and extra-large. The conveyor indexes boxes which are presented to the robot in pairs if they are small or large, or one extra-large box,” explained Matthew. “The robot picks up two boxes at a time unless they are extra-large (these are picked up one at a time). The robot continues picking up the boxes and stacking them on the pallet using a pre-programmed pallet configuration with eight boxes on each layer.”

The robot continues back and forth stacking the boxes until the pallet is full. There are two pallet positions in each cell for the robot to load. The idea being that once a pallet is full, that pallet can make its way out of the palletiser via a powered pallet conveyor and the robot doesn't have to stop, as it moves immediately onto loading the second pallet position.

“We seen around a 20% improvement in throughput with the automated palletisation,” confirmed Matthew. “The installation of the automated palletisation cells was probably one of my most nervous times,” he admitted. “We were expecting to have a period of at least two or three weeks of teething issues which could impact our throughput performance. In reality, however, everything ran smoothly. The pick-to-light system in phase one and the automated palletiser in phase two have not only allowed us to become more efficient, but also enabled us to gather more tracking data on customer orders around the site. We can now track a customer’s box from the point of order through its journey on our production floor; we know who packed the items in the box and when that box was shipped. Soon we’ll be installing a camera system that will take a photograph of each box prior to it being sealed. This will give us the evidence that what we've sent is what was ordered by the customer.”

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