by Dan Malovany
Breakthroughs don’t come often, but when they do, it’s because someone created new technology and finally figured out a practical way to unlock one of those puzzles that once seemed impossible to solve. Historically, in the baking and snack industries, picking, placing and packaging delicate products at the end of the production line posed the biggest labor and ergonomic problems — at least until the last few years.
While packaging still remains a challenge for most smaller food companies, many larger snack producers have figured out the Rubik’s Cube of repetitive motion and labor-intensive issues by taking advantage of the ongoing advances in sophisticated, high-speed flexible primary packaging automation, according to Albert (Al) Koch, director of biscuit engineering, global supply chain, Kraft Foods, Northfield, IL.
Specifically, deft-handling delta robotic technology coupled with more affordable vision systems provide dexterity in the packaging department to more effectively and efficiently accomplish what had taken dozens of people in the past. “It’s as if you have a human hand that can see the product and, if it’s misshaped, not pick it up and let it go,” said Mr. Koch, a 44-year veteran of the industry who works out of the company’s East Hanover, NJ, facility.
In addition to guiding delta robots, vision technology provides operators with time-stamped statistical data that companies can use to determine the exact moment the process fell off the rails and, later, the root cause of the problem. “You can see why there was a higher level of reject or something else, and it allows you to have better process control,” Mr. Koch noted.
Currently, vision systems in the feed-forward process manage a production line’s operation as products travel from the oven and cooler downstream to packaging. Reversing that process might provide even greater production efficiencies. “The next step will be to take feedback information to automatically adjust process equipment [upstream and] in real time,” he said. Under such a system, the production line would minimize waste by continuously adjusting processing equipment based on information gathered by a string of vision systems guided by preprogrammed quality control parameters and fed into a computer.
SEEING AND BEYOND.
During the past couple of years, X-ray inspection technology also has taken quantum leaps and become more affordable because there is an increasing number of competing suppliers in the industry. For a company like Kraft Foods that uses a variety of creative packaging formats, simple metal detection isn’t enough. “We often use metallized film, and with metallized film, traditional magnets and metal detectors don’t work, so you have to go beyond that,” Mr. Koch said.
With the trend toward more wholesome foods, more snack manufacturers are rolling out products with variably sized particulates such as whole grains, fruit, nuts or seeds. Sifting and screening ingredients at critical control points can help manage the issue, but they don’t solve the entire problem. “When you have [a product] that has large particulates in it, you can’t really sift that out so you have to have other means of inspecting it for foreign matter,” Mr. Koch said. “That’s where X-ray technology is helping us a great deal.”
Because of these technologies, especially robots that can pick and place a wide variety of different shaped and sized products, the end of the production line has become one of the most advanced areas in recent years. “I think we’ve made more progress in packaging, on that end of the process, than in the front end,” Mr. Koch said.