Robotics: Get a Grip

by Shane Whitaker
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Major performance improvements and increased competition among manufacturers and integrators of robotic systems during the past decade have taken robots from a relative novelty to affordable and reliable solutions for virtually any wholesale baking or snack plant.

Any packing operation can now be robotized, according to Vincent Feix, vice-president and North American sales manager, De La Ballina Industry, Pointe Claire, QC. “If your operations in the packaging area require workers to pick product from a belt and move it into a box, a bag or another conveyor, then robotics is an option,” he said. “This has been possible thanks to performance increases by robot manufacturers and of 3-D vision systems, as well as solutions developed for handling bakery product specifically.”

Having studied potential robotic applications, Jeff Dearduff, director, US bakery operations, East Balt, Inc., Chicago, IL, observed, “I can see a day in the future where a single person could oversee a multi-line packaging system from a control room as vision and robotic product manipulation handle the loading of loose products. The systems we see today will load and stack baskets, cases and bins, while automated systems fill freezers and trucks.”

Currently, East Balt has not incorporated robotics in any of its packaging lines; however, Mr. Dearduff said the baking company will be integrating some in a new plant in 2011.

REPLACING REPETITIVE MOTION.

Robots are used in packaging to replace complex human operations, according to Mr. Feix. De La Ballina bases its research and development on the principle that the fundamental human functions required in packaging operations at bakeries are performed by the arm, the hand and the eye. Robotic systems readily match each.

The arm is the robot, and depending on the operation, it can travel along three to six axes to achieve the required movement, he said. “The hand is the tool required to pick the product, and bakery products require a specific and customized solution,” Mr. Feix observed.

The tools used to pick are commonly referred to as end effectors, and standard-market vacuum cups do not always correspond to bakery industry applications, he said. “The variety of products to pick, the abrasiveness of the crust, the fragility of certain products such as frozen pastries and the complexity and irregularity of the surface have required us to develop specific tools in the De La Ballina R&D department to answer customer needs,” he noted.

Bosch Packaging Technology, New Richmond, WI, also custom designs end effectors for its robotic systems. “We don’t have an off-the-shelf end effector; we build you the best end effector for the specific product requirement,” said Jon Otto, product manager, robotics, wrappers and secondary.

LeMatic, Inc., Jackson, MI, also builds end effectors to meet costumers’ needs, and these devices can be important in helping bakeries achieve the necessary capacity for a line, according to Gregory Brasic, senior systems integrator for the supplier. LeMatic is an ABB robotic integrator, but in the past couple of years, it has begun using robots from Codian B.V. of The Netherlands. A major advantage with Codian, he said, is that LeMatic uses Allen-Bradley control systems when integrating these arms into bakery lines.

“It makes integration seamless because you use the same controller to run the robot that you are using to run the cell,” Mr. Brasic noted. “It is all done in ladder logic. The maintenance people understand it better. There is only one control system, so there are no ‘handshaking’ issues.”

VISION AND SENSORS.

The eye is the vision system. Mr. Feix said vision is mandatory for robotics applied to packaging in bakeries and is probably the most challenging part of the project. “The perfect image in 3-D of each single product is the key for picking product at the right position and placing it in the final package with accuracy and repeatability without marking or damaging the product,” he said.

The vision system scans and tracks individual products and pilots the robot. “Rejecting a bad product in a packing line is as easy as not telling the robot to pick it,” Mr. Feix explained. “Bad product can remain on the belt and fall down into a bin at the end of the picking conveyor. So using vision to do quality inspection on products is an added bonus.”

LeMatic incorporates vision for robotics systems when needed because of variation in shape, size and location of products, and it also uses vision for quality inspections along those lines. However, where possible, the company uses sensors because they are lower-cost and easier to troubleshoot, Mr. Brasic said.

Bosch also uses vision systems when necessary on its conveyors; however, its greatest advance in its delta robotic systems during the past year was the introduction of new software. The Gemini 3 software package makes it easier for operators to access the parameters of the robotic system and set up new recipe configurations, according to Mr. Otto.

“We have the capability to visualize the production run on the interface of the machine,” he said. “Operators can now access the parameters though the touchscreen, and we also can allow customers to do simulations. If they have a new product, they can actually go in and set up the configurations on the recipe. Next, they can test it on the human-machine interface (HMI) and see if the placement zones are good and if they are getting a good picking strategy among all the robot configurations. If it looks good, they can dump that in as a recipe to start up production runs. They do not have to go back to a desk or come to us to create the recipes; they have that capability right on the HMI.”

ADDED FLEXIBILITY.

Bosch’s experience helps the company provide the right robotic solutions for a customer’s products, according to Mr. Otto. “We have all the flexibility built into the machines that the user will need to go from one product to the next and even to add new products,” he said. “The flexibility is in the machines to accomplish that.”

Bosch offers three different delta robotic solutions for the baking and snack industry. “Delta arms give you the fastest rates in the industry,” he said.

Mr. Otto described Bosch’s delta robots as 3-axis systems with parallel arms that each function as their own servo drive. “The algorithms are designed into the system to allow the arms to move freely in all three axes to pick anywhere within the working area,” he added.

The Delphi system works in a perpendicular flow to take primary products from the line. Because it can use vision to detect products, the robots can pick and place products into wrapper flights from random orientations.

The Paloma-D2 loads cartons and cases, or it can take products coming from baggers and place them into various top-load tray cartons. The Presto collates products and then takes a multiple count into a carton. “That machine is used quite heavily in the baking industry in a secondary fashion,” Mr. Otto said.

Bosch manufactures the robotic arms, the end effectors and the software, and it builds much of the other equipment used in packaging rooms such as wrappers and carton formers. “We can give our customers integrated lines and complete solutions to help the business grow,” he added.

Raque Food Systems, Louisville, KY, integrates robots into bakery lines, and because it understands the baking industry and how processors need to manipulate specific products, Ted Robinson, applications engineer for the company, said it can take a robot that has broad-spectrum use and engineer it specifically with its complete line.

Mr. Brasic pointed out that greater flexibility increases the complexity of the robot system, but that robots can easily accommodate multiple product styles with removable, quick-change tooling. “Robots are more flexible than traditional automation cells because with robots a lot more can be done with programming, logic and tooling,” he said.

Bakers desire flexible and adaptable robotic solutions, according to Mr. Feix. Bakeries want to know that no matter what the next best-selling bakery product is, they can still automatically package it using their current systems with limited modifications. “The varieties of products robots can handle are unlimited,” he said.

QUICK RETURNS.

However, the most important consideration that bakeries have when purchasing robots is payback, Mr. Feix observed.

Mr. Otto pointed out that bakeries typically are looking a return on investment (ROI) of anywhere from 12 to 24 months on a robotic system. “So you get your payback fairly quickly,” he added.

Bakeries, when investigating the possibility of adding robots, need to determine how many people they have on a line and what kind of runs they are doing, Mr. Otto said. “If it is a 24/7 bakery run, I’d say that application is a great candidate. Also, robots can go into a facility and work tirelessly — they don’t get sick; they don’t take vacations,” he added. “And if the robot is replacing a repetitive-motion task that over time can lead to sustained injuries, then it has even greater advantages.”

Ken Mentch, national sales manger, Workhorse Automation, Oxford, PA, concurred with Mr. Brasic that bakeries want a ROI of two years or less. “If the repetitive task is done three shifts a day, a robot has a very quick ROI,” Mr. Mentch observed.

Another way to shorten ROI for a robotic system, he said, is to use it on two lines instead of just one. Mr. Mentch explained that often a robot can be positioned between two lines and actually replace two conventional machines.

Robots also have the potential to help bakeries improve throughputs — another reason companies decide to add them to lines. “We have seen countless times where bakeries have been able to increase their outputs by switching to robotics,” Mr. Otto said.

Today the costs for robotic systems are lower than they were even three or four years ago. As competition increases and more installations occur, prices will continue to decline. Mr. Robinson pointed out that the biggest hindrance to companies adding robots has been cost. “But that is changing rapidly,” he said. “Cost seems to be changing, and more customers are looking at them.”

If robots are the future, then the future is now. “I think with the demands for production and output needed these days in bakeries, robotics can yield very quick turnaround on investment,” Mr. Otto said. “They give greater output and are reliable solutions for production and packaging needs.”

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