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Using Robots to Solve End-of-Line Issues in the Food Industry

Food manufacturers face a number of challenges in their end-of-line packaging operations. In a manual process, they must deal with ergonomic issues, labor availability, and the uncertainty of increasing costs associated with recent and potential future legislation. In an automated process, accommodating rapid-fire package changes driven by sustainability initiatives and shelf impact, as well understanding and improving key performance measures such as Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), are key. And in any process, food safety is an overriding concern on the minds of processors, as the consequences of foodborne illness and/or massive product recalls have affected a wide range of food categories.

Current Robotic Trends in Packaging

Industrial robots have emerged as a valuable end-of-line tool to help address these challenges for food manufacturers, as the performance and user-friendliness of the technology has increased while costs have decreased. Growth in vision-assisted robotic applications is especially notable, as vision enables a robot to emulate the flexibility of human hand-eye coordination and perform a number of in-process product inspections for quality assurance. A number of statistics point to increased adoption of robotics in the industry: The International Federation of Robotics (IFR) Statistics Department, which provides information on world-wide trends in robotics, reports optimistically about robotics industry growth in the coming years. According to the Robotics and Automation Society, whose goal is to ”advance innovation, education, and fundamental and applied research in Robotics and Automation, ” (1) says in a report that ”Nearly every major user industry increased its purchases in the opening quarter of 2010. Especially strong gains were seen in robot sales to the semiconductor/electronics/photonics industries as well as food & consumer goods.” In addition, “Material handling remains the largest application area for new robot orders, accounting for some 60% of the units sold in North America in the January through March period.” (2)

Robotics in the packaging industry is also shown to be on the rise in a survey done by PMMI in 2008 (3).

Growth of Robotics in Packaging (3)

Growth of Robotics in Packaging (3)

Usage Trends for Robotics in Packaging (3)

Usage Trends for Robotics in Packaging (3)

Many food companies and packaging machinery manufacturers have successfully applied robots in a wide variety of processes in the dairy, meat, baking, confection, frozen, snack, beverage, and even produce industries. Some are unique new applications exploiting the flexibility of robots, but more typically a robot is used to complement a traditional packaging machine as an infeed loader or outfeed unloader:

  • Placing products into the infeed buckets of side-loading cartoners

  • Placing products directly into top-loading cartons

  • Loading the infeed of a flow-wrapper

  • Filling the product pockets in a form, fill and seal (FFS) machine

  • Arranging products in blister and thermoforming machines

  • Creating product arrays or stacks at the infeed to a bagging operation

  • Placing products directly into clamshell packaging

  • Loading and unloading a retort process

  • Descrambling bottles from bulk for the infeed of filling, capping, and/or labeling machines

  • Topload and sideload casepacking of bags, pouches, tubes, bottles, bundles, cartons, etc.

  • Packing products into reusable or single-use trays

  • Unloading various types of baked goods from pans

  • Unloading and casepacking single-serve portion packages from filling machines

  • Palletizing and depalletizing beverages, cases, bags, pails, totes, bulk containers, cans, bundles, etc.

These robotic applications have enabled manufacturers in the food industry to accommodate new lightweight sustainable package designs, improve OEE, reduce changeover time, eliminate change parts, reduce operating costs, and improve food safety and quality.

(1) IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, (accessed 2010–09–15), http://www.ieee-ras.org.

(2) IEEE RAS, Munich, 09 June 2010 (Accessed 2010-08-26). http://www.ieee-ras.org/news/236/IFR-Statistics-report-optimistic-about-robotics-industry-growth-in-2011-12.html.

(3) PMMI, Robotics: Usage and Trends in Packaging Applications. (Accessed 2010–08–31). http://www.pmmi.org/files/pib/Robotics.pdf.

Benefits of End-of-Line Robots in Packaging

End-of-line palletizing robots can be used with multi-case grippers, for example, to achieve high throughput rates. After the cases are collated on the infeed conveyor, the robot can transfer the cases, using a vacuum-actuated gripper, to the pallet. Products that can be palletized can include: corrugated cases bags and pouches, bottles and cans, totes and open cases, drums, pails and rolls, bundles and stacks, pallets and slip sheets. The precise placement of items such as these on the pallet ensures that the corners and edges of the cases are aligned for maximum stacking strength and minimal product damage in shipment. Optimally, edges should be stacked on edges, and corners should be stacked on corners and that is one of those areas where a robotic system, being done manually today, can definitely help with quality and reduced product damage in shipping.

A highly efficient layout, with the conveyor locations and elevations carefully optimized, enables peak production rates of more than 60 cases per minute. Note below that the gripper is servo-actuated to vary selectively the spacing of the cases from the infeed conveyor to form the stacking pattern on the pallet.

Palletizing Multi-Case Gripper

Palletizing Multi-Case Gripper

The robot can also simultaneously run two different products of distinctly different sizes with uniquely different palletizing patterns. This production flexibility helps maximize productivity by minimizing changeover time.

Alternating Products with the Same Robot

Alternating Products with the Same Robot

In some cases, many products need to be run in lower volumes. To solve this problem you might have a single infeed with a variety of product types, eight different ones for example, flowing into the cell and the bar code is read at the entry point into the cell and the robots are sorting selectively to one of the eight different pallets. In addition the robot handles the bottom slip-sheet that is put under each load in order to bring a lot of functionality out of one machine.

Robots can also be used efficiently in places where humans don't want to be — a freezer for example. Deep-freeze environments present a special challenge from a personnel standpoint. Often a single operation requires multiple associates because their exposure time to the extreme cold must be limited. Robots can be adapted for these specialty environments such as freezers. A heated suit can be used to protect the robot and the teach pendant from the severe temperatures. An experienced integrator can select the appropriate system peripherals such as conveyors and gripper components to deal with the frigid environment.

Robots in Traditionally Hazardous Low Temperature Environments

Robots in Traditionally Hazardous Low Temperature Environments


Benefits of Flexible Robotic Automation in End-of-Line Food Production Operations

Traditional End-of-Line Methods End-of-Line Methods Utilizing Robots
Manual Pick, Place, and Palletizing Robots can pick primary and secondary product, place into cartoners, and palletize product efficiently and effectively
Unsafe process or a process that is at a significant risk for repetitive stress injury Robots are precise, clean, and repetitive and can run without failure for several cycles
Hard automation is inflexible Sudden product or packaging changes are handled with ease
Risk contamination Are hygienic and sterilized
Risk product damage during packaging Highly sophisticated sensors monitor pressure, and grippers that have been developed specifically for food processing can eliminate product or package damage
Tedious, repetitive, and heavy-handling tasks Consistent movements and high payload capacity perform tasks with ease
Imprecise equipment handling can damage equipment Precise, consistent handling can greatly increase the service life of the equipment.
Unreliable equipment Reliable with Mean Time Between Failure rates > 90,000 hours
Large single-task equipment requirements Small workcell footprints with robots that can handle multiple operations

End-of-Line Automation process problems can be solved using robots for many food applications including packaging items such as:

  • Flour

  • Cookies and crackers

  • Candy

  • Frozen foods such as waffles or pizza

  • Bread, buns or rolls

  • Single serve bowls or pouches

  • Robots can also be used to assist in the packaging process. This can be done in such cases as loading cartoning machines with empty cartons.

iRVision® in the Food Industry

FANUC Robotics uses iRVision® for part location. iRVision® is Integrated Robot Vision which is the integration of a camera interface built into the robot controller. One or more cameras can be attached to the robot, or they can be in a remote location. In traditional processes, if you want the robot to manipulate every workpiece in the same way, you need to place every workpiece at exactly the same position. iRVision® is a visual sensor system designed to eliminate such restrictions. iRVision® measures the position of each workpiece by using cameras, and it adjusts the robot motion so that the robot can manipulate the workpiece in the same way as programmed even if the position of the workpiece is different from the workpiece position set when the robot program was taught. All of the application-specific tools developed to simplify the use of the camera as a guidance, identification, or inspection tool are integrated with the robot.

iRVision®:

  • Can handle multiple parts at one time.

  • Reduces floor space.

  • Makes part changeovers a breeze.

  • Can identify parts in multiple orientations.

  • Can identify parts in 2D or 3D.

  • Can error proof the parts as they enter assembly, as well as the assembly itself.

  • Can increase throughput.

  • Reduces or eliminates fixturing costs.

Robot Applications

Several examples below show how robots have been integrated effectively into end-of-line food packaging and food-related operations in order to improve the production process, and save money.

Food Packaging
Using a Robot to Handle Food-Related Packing Materials

In some high-speed applications a robot can be used to handle the packaging materials themselves. The robot accepts cases of flat cartons as shown below.

Cartoner Magazine Loader

Cartoner Magazine Loader

The robot then loads the infeed magazine of the cartoning machine in order to ensure uninterrupted operation of the cartoning process.

Cartoner Magazine Loader

Cartoner Magazine Loader

Can and Glass Jar Palletizing

With each cycle in a full layer depalletizing application, a 4-axis M-410iB robot acquires a full layer of cans with a tier sheet on top. After the layer of cans is separated from the magnetic tooling, a vacuum system retains the tier sheet until it’s deposited on an outgoing stack for reuse.

Can Palletizing

Can Palletizing

When the pallet is completely empty, the robot also transfers the empty pallet to an outgoing stack. Then a new load can be introduced into the system.

Can Palletizing

Can Palletizing

In a glass palletizing system, a wide variety of bottle sizes is accepted. It also handles bottles in bulk as well as corrugated shippers. The R-2000iB layer-forming robot performs automatic tool change to switch between bulk and shippers, while the M-410iB layer-palletizing robot requires no changeover. The M-410iB palletizes the product, handles layer separator boards and the top frame on each pallet load. The same system can be used for plastic bottles as well. Perfect loads that minimize product damage are produced by precise alignment of each successive layer on the previous layer.

Glass Jar Palletizing

Glass Jar Palletizing

Plastic Container Palletizing

Casepacking plastic containers is a common robotic application. A variety of robots, gripper types, and system configurations can be applied to provide high speed, production flexibility, and quick changeover. Often a 6-axis robot is used so that the case can be tipped during packing, to take advantage of gravity to help stabilize previously-packed layers of product.

Plastic Container Casepacking

Plastic Container Casepacking

Picking, Packing and Palletizing Food and Drink Items
Palletizing Bottled Water

Non-carbonated beverages in the bottles are extremely fragile and can be damaged by conventional palletizing equipment. By handling the products more gently, the robotic system eliminates product damage and enables the customer to achieve their sustainability goals for their products. The robotic system also changes over immediately, delivering high OEE.

Palletizing Bottled Water

Palletizing Bottled Water

Palletizing Bottled Water

Palletizing Bottled Water

Packing Warehouse Club Drinks

This system applies molded plastic handles for large beverage containers.

Applying Handles to Drinks

Applying Handles to Drinks

The robots easily accommodate misalignment of the incoming cases, using offsets from an upstream iRVision camera.

Applying Handles to Drinks on Incoming Cases

Applying Handles to Drinks on Incoming Cases

PickPRO was used to prove out the process before any hardware was built.

Using PickPro to Set Up the System

Using PickPro to Set Up the System

Packaging Paper Goods

The robotic system in this paper packaging application greatly simplifies the packaging operation traditionally performed by expensive and expansive hard automation.

Packing Paper Goods

Packing Paper Goods

Consolidating and combining multiple functions into the robotic stations created an efficient and less expensive system.

Packaging Paper Goods Efficiently with Two Robots

Packaging Paper Goods Efficiently with Two Robots

Cartoning Bars

This high-speed application for cartoning bars uses the robot not only to pack the cartons, but also to act as the in-process transfer mechanism from the carton erector to the outfeed conveyor. Note the gripper motion to change the product spacing while transferring between the bar wrapper outfeed and the cartons.

A 4-axis M-420iA robot uses a high throughput vacuum gripper with adjustable pitch to pack bars and transfers cartons to a pallet.

Cartoning Bars

Cartoning Bars

Packing Flour into Corrugated Boxes

In the following example, flour is stacked in corrugated shipping gaylords, or corrugated fiberboard bulk boxes, using a 4–axis M-420iA robot with a vacuum gripper in a compact, high-speed system.

Packing Bags of Flour

Packing Bags of Flour

Flour bags are then collated and stacked in the boxes in a 1 infeed, 2 pallet system. This system solves the notoriously common ergonomics issue of reaching into deep, high-walled containers found in many manufacturing settings.

Collating Flour Bags into Boxes

Collating Flour Bags into Boxes


Casepacking Cookies and Crackers

The flexible casepacking system accommodates a variety of products including products in cartons, sleeves, open-top case, etc. Multiple processes can be performed in one workcell by the same robot maximizing throughput and minimizing floor space. The center robot performs multiple functions such as delivering empty cases to the casepacking robots, handling full cases of various types, and also handling and applying adhesive to the lid of the open-top case.

Casepacking Cookies and Crackers

Casepacking Cookies and Crackers

In this workcell, a 6–axis M-16iB robot and a 4–axis M-420iA robot are used.

Casepacking Frozen Dough

By using vision , the robots in these next few examples emulate hand-eye coordination to deliver the production flexibility to process multiple product types, while changeover, if required at all, is limited to the robot grippers. In this system, the same robots and identical infeed conveyor accommodate small rounds, large rounds and breadsticks. Note the robots casepack the product as well as the layer-separator sheets with each cycle.

Casepacking Frozen Dough

Casepacking Frozen Dough

Sophisticated software coordinates the activities of the 8 robots to process the incoming product flow and differing product sizes. This advanced function is called “load balancing.” Product changeover is accomplished with ease as the robot quickly changes from picking up six frozen dough items to two.

Casepacking Frozen Dough

Casepacking Frozen Dough

Stacking Waffles

Rice waffles are transferred at high speed to downstackers which then feed baggers for the waffle stacks. Vision on a 6-axis LR Mate 200iC robot is used not only to guide the robots to the waffles for picking, but also to screen out any broken or misshapen waffles as an in-process quality check. Sophisticated PickTool software from FANUC coordinates the activity of the multiple robots to share the workload and process the incoming waffle flow. This advanced function is called “load balancing.”

Stacking Waffles

Stacking Waffles

Picking Waffles on an Infeed Conveyor

Picking Waffles on an Infeed Conveyor

Packing Buns and Rolls

Bread and rolls shrink significantly from the time when they exit warm from the bakery oven, and then cool on the way to grocery shelves. Robotic systems provide highly flexible pack-pattern options, and apply just the right amount of compression to baked goods to compensate for cooling and shrinkage in order to achieve the optimal shipping density and product quality. By shipping more product in every tray, logistics costs are significantly reduced: fewer tractor trailer trips, reduced storage and replacement cost of in-process baskets, reduced staffing to handle baskets, etc.

Packing Bread into Baskets and Boxes

Packing Bread into Baskets and Boxes

Packing Bread

Packing Bread

Picking Specialty Breads

This versatile high-speed picking system accepts frozen specialty sandwiches from the upstream freezer and transfers them to the infeed of up to 3 flow-wrappers.

Picking Frozen Foods

Picking Frozen Foods

Highly advanced PickTool software coordinates the activity of the 18 robots in the line. In addition to accepting a variety of flavors, the system provides tremendous operational flexibility and uptime: under normal operation, 6 robots serve each of 3 flow-wrapper infeeds, but if any flow-wrapper experiences downtime, the speed of the remaining 2 flow-wrappers is increased and 9 robots serve each infeed – all automatically!

Picking Frozen Foods

Picking Frozen Foods

Muffin Depanning and Clamshell Loading

In this example, a robot is used to transfer muffins from baking pans to the retail “clamshell” package. Up to 48 muffins are transferred each cycle, using a mechanical fork gripper for reliable handling. Note the gripper changes the product spacing in two dimensions to adjust from the even spacing of the baking pans to the 2x2 arrays used in the retail package.

Muffin Depanning

Muffin Depanning

The robot used as a transfer device resulted in a significant improvement in the system uptime, by replacing a variety of wear components and individual custom actuations with a high reliability, standard robot. Industrial robots commonly achieve a Meat Time Between Failure (MTBF) performance of more than 80,000 hours.

Muffin Depanning

Muffin Depanning

Casepacking Single Serving Bowls and Cups

In this example, single-serving bowls of a grain-based breakfast product are presented in lanes to an auxiliary device that inverts alternating bowls. The robot picks a group of bowls that are right-side up, then immediately picks a matching group of upside-down bowls from the auxiliary device. This picking sequence, combined with a collapsing actuation in the robot gripper, nests the tapered bowls into a high-density pack pattern for maximum shipping efficiency. Four cases are packed simultaneously to achieve production rates of more than 300 per minute.

Single Serve Bowl Packing

Single Serve Bowl Packing

This method outperforms conventional alternatives with its lower capital cost, higher reliability and maintainability.

In another single portion cup casepacking application, that uses an M-420iA and an M-421iA robot, single-serve portion and condiment cups are shown. Initially, a conveyor system is used to present products to the robot, while an auxiliary device handles layer separator sheets. The robot then picks directly from the indexing table of the filler (machine), and handles layer separators as well.

Single Portion Cup Casepacking

Single Portion Cup Casepacking

Single Portion Cup Casepacking

Single Portion Cup Casepacking

Finally, the robot picks directly from the filler and then passes the products past an inkjet-printer to apply a date code “on the fly”. In all applications, the robot gripper adjusts the spacing from the infeed to fit within the case inside dimensions.

Single Portion Cup Casepacking

Single Portion Cup Casepacking

Packing Single Serve Coffee Pouches

In the following example, a food-grade 6–axis M-430iA robot loads empty coffee packets to a filling machine. If you look closely, a small tab is visible on each packet. This is the filling tab and it is randomly oriented on the infeed conveyor. FANUC Robotics' iRVision is used for guidance and to determine the proper orientation of the fill tab so that the filling process proceeds smoothly.

Picking and Packing Coffee Pouches

Picking and Packing Coffee Pouches

Casepacking Food Pouches

In this example, robots are used to casepack single-serving bags. Advanced application software is used to coordinate the picking and placing activities of all three robots, including tracking the status of the fill level of the corrugated cases on the outfeed conveyor. Vision guidance combined with vacuum grippers allows for simple conveyance, fast changeover, and high reliability.

Single Serve Pouches

Single Serve Pouches

Bags not cut into single-serving bags appropriately are skipped and not stacked, as shown below.

Single Serve Pouches

Single Serve Pouches

In another similar application, a unique multi-part mechanical gripper and robot motion is used to create the packing pattern within the case.

5 lb. Olive Pouches

5 lb. Olive Pouches

With a simple gripper changeover, the system accommodates 5 lb. and 20 oz. bags, and packs to plain corrugated cases as well as cases lined with poly bags.

20 oz. Olive Pouches

20 oz. Olive Pouches

Casepacking Olive Pouches

Casepacking Olive Pouches

In another example, two different sizes of bags of soup are casepacked in the same system. A unique feature of this system is the innovative gripper that mimics the pinching motion of the human hand to pick fluid bags.

Picking Fluid Soup Pouches

Picking Fluid Soup Pouches

This system is complemented by easy changeover to a vacuum system that handles frozen bags securely.

Picking Frozen Soup Pouches

Picking Frozen Soup Pouches

High Speed Bag Palletizing

In this example, two robots are used to achieve high throughput rates in a bag palletizing application. Note that the robots are installed at two different elevations to optimize the performance of one robot for the lower half of the load, and the other robot for the upper half. Sophisticated software prevents collisions of the two robots during operation.

High Speed Bag Palletizing

High Speed Bag Palletizing

Many products in addition to food are transported in bags, such as pet food, gardening products, construction materials, powdered ingredients, etc.

Bag Fill and Palletizing

Many customers struggle with ergonomics issues when placing human operators in environmentally dangerous work atmospheres. In this case, a nasty ergonomics problem has been solved. Note the back brace and respirator on the operator shown below.

Traditional Bag Fill and Palletizing

Traditional Bag Fill and Palletizing

In this installation the robot is used instead, with minimal impact on floor space while providing a significant improvement in productivity and worker safety.

Robotic Bag Fill and Palletizing

Robotic Bag Fill and Palletizing

In this operation, the bags are placed on a fill nozzle to be filled.

Valve Bag Filling

Valve Bag Filling

After the bags are filled, a multi-function gripper and an M-710iB robot is used to palletize each bag efficiently.

Bag Palletizing

Bag Palletizing

Picking and Packing Produce

In one application example, lettuce heads are first dropped randomly on a conveyor.

Randomly Placed Heads of Lettuce

Randomly Placed Heads of Lettuce

After the lettuce heads are singulated, a vision system measures the shape and form of the lettuce and determines where to cut the root.

Singulating Lettuce Heads

Singulating Lettuce Heads

iRVision® Used to Measure Lettuce Head Size

iRVision® Used to Measure Lettuce Head Size

The FANUC LR Mate 200iB robot helps to perform a second check on the lettuce head to determine its size. If it passes the final test, the lettuce head is then placed successfully into plastic trays.

Lettuce Heads that Pass the Final Test

Lettuce Heads that Pass the Final Test

Palletizing Egg Cartons

This system highlights the benefits of robotics compared to a manual operation. With manual casepacking, handling of eggs can vary widely across individual employees and over the course of a shift as fatigue sets in. Users of this automated casepacking system all report significant yield improvements, with fewer cracked eggs. Higher employee morale and customer satisfaction have also been key benefits of the systems.

Packing Egg Cartons

Packing Egg Cartons

Picking and Palletizing Cheese

This application uses 6-axis R-2000iB robot, 6-axis M-710iC robot and a 4-axis M-410iB robot to rack and unrack balls of Edam cheese to be stored for the aging process.

Cheese Picking for the Aging Process

Cheese Picking for the Aging Process

High speed multi-part vacuum and mechanical grippers are used to transfer them to the infeed of a coating machine where they get their distinctive red paraffin wax coating. Quick product changeovers are accomplished to accept three different product diameters/weights.

Picking Cheese

Picking Cheese

Placing Cheese on a Conveyor

Placing Cheese on a Conveyor

Coating Cheese with Wax

Coating Cheese with Wax

The cheeses continue through wrapping and labeling processes to a robotic casepacking system. After the cases are closed they are conveyed to the robotic palletizing operation.

Palletizing Packaged Cheese Boxes

Palletizing Packaged Cheese Boxes

In another cheese packaging application, cheese packages are slit and separated into individual products which need to be labeled with a date code. A vision-guided M-430iA robot identifies the packages after the slitting operation and transfers them with proper orientation to a conveyor feeding the downstream labeling machine. The USDA-accepted M-430iA is “clean sheet” robot design for food applications. It is inspectable and cleanable, and resistant to chemical attack, providing an excellent platform for sanitary food-processing robotic applications.

Cheese Packaging

Cheese Packaging

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