Robotics: Robotic Revolution
December 01, 2009
by Shane Whitaker
Robotics remains in the early stages of implementation into bakeries and snack manufacturing plants. Although robots are being applied in new areas, there are still many processes where robotics could be incorporated in the future as further advances are made.
“Many bakeries have only started to look to robotics in the past few years versus other industries that have been using robotics for decades,” said Roland Lomerson Jr., director of automation, AMF Automation Systems, Richmond, VA. “However, the realized need for robotic automation is arguably highest in the food production segment and specifically in the bakery and snack food industries.”
Charles Gales, manager of automation sales, Weldon Solutions, York, PA, contended that robots have gained a secure foothold in the baking industry. “Packaging applications have been a leader in introducing this technology to bakers,” he said. “Success in this area will continue to open up new applications in the processing area of bakeries.”
Implementing robotics into bakeries is still in its infancy, according to Rick Hoskins IV, vice-president, sales and marketing, Colborne Foodbiotics, Lake Forest, IL. While many large bakers have aggressively installed robots, they still have many applications to go before it would be considered in the mature stage, he added.
Although a few plants have a robot installed on nearly every line, Mr. Hoskins pointed out that is not the norm. However, more mid-level bakers are starting to invest in robots. “I think there was a concern over a company’s ability to service and support the robots while in the bakery, but we are noticing this concern is starting to dwindle as more and more robots are installed in bakeries of all sizes,” he said.
Robotics provides automated solutions to many operations that were previously manual jobs, according to Mr. Lomerson. Whereas bakeries have used “hard automation” without robotics for decades, hard automation was limited and unable to address many of the more complicated tasks. “Robotics gives the baking industry the capability to revisit and solve many of these automation challenges that could not be addressed with hard automation,” he said.
Numerous robotic applications from high-speed picking to stacking of heavy product in a bakery improve labor efficiency and reduce exposure to repetitive trauma, according to Mr. Gales. “The reliability of robotic technology has led to a shift away from fixedpath hard-automation devices,” he noted. “This also has enabled bakers to reduce changeover time because the flexibility of a robot makes it able to adapt to varying production requirements.”
Robotics has provided a tool for automating many areas of the bakery, resulting in significantly improved efficiency throughout the bakery and eliminating many repetitive-motion issues, according to Mr. Lomerson.
AMF integrates a variety of robotic tools for the baking industry. “It is important to note that every automation opportunity has an optimal robotic solution,” Mr. Lomerson said. “This is why AMF offers many robotic tools including gantry robots, articulating arm robots, pick-andplace robots and palletizing robots to address automation opportunities.”
Packaging is probably the place where robots can be the most useful and powerful, according to Vincent Feix, vice-president and North American sales manager, De La Ballina Industry, Pointe Claire, QC. He said the company integrates 6-, 5- and 4-axis robots, as well as 3-axis SCARA and Delta robot technology depending on product size, weight, fragility and production rate. “New innovations in all these different technologies are proposed to the market every month that allow going faster and handling heavier product in a smaller floor space,” Mr. Feix added.
De La Ballina recently applied robotics to direct case packing of artisan bread and pastries. Because larger artisan products often required complex product organization in boxes to optimize box filling, hand packing was the only option for bakeries, according to Mr. Feix. However, the company, which has expertise in vision systems applied in bakery packaging solutions, developed, patented and robotized direct case packing solutions for artisan breads, according to Mr. Feix. “This innovation allows extreme flexibility in product variety and packing options,” he said. “No changeover is required from a large focaccia to a boule or a batard.
“Associating vision system and robots also allows doing quality inspection and sorting very easily,” he continued. “As well as locating and piloting robots, the vision hardware and software is used to control dimensions, shape and color. Then, once a product is detected out of specs, rejecting it is simply made by not ordering any of the picking robots to pack it.”
The same principles can be applied to pastries as robots pack product on plastic trays or insert dividers between different layers of products, Mr. Feix added. “The same robot can also insert plastic trays in boxes when several layers are contained in the final packaging,” he observed.
The new M-1iA high-speed picking robot from FANUC Robotics is one of the latest robots being integrated into bakeries, according to Mr. Gales. “With the ability to perform an 8-in. picking motion at a rate of 200 cycles per minute, this robot is extremely fast,” he said. “The M-1iA is the only Delta-style picking robot available with six axes of motion, which means that product could be set on its side for packaging applications as opposed to the former limitation of always handling product in a horizontal orientation”
High-speed bread loading systems from Colborne Foodbotics allow processors to use fewer bagging lines than before because one of its robotic systems is capable of running at speeds that can handle the newer higher speed bagging technology or the input from two baggers. “This allows installers of new bread lines to reduce the footprint required to package bread,” Mr. Hoskins said. “In addition, bakers no longer need to buy three or four baggers to handle an oven’s output; they can do it with two, thus lowering their capital investment.”
Primary product handling by robotics is probably the biggest opportunity for this technology moving forward, he said. “As an example, handling raw cookie dough into trays prior to baking is a significant opportunity that until now was not feasible,” Mr. Hoskins explained. “With the recent introduction of high-speed, more sanitary robots, we are in a position to deliver a sanitary system that automates the handling and/or packaging of food products that are not packaged. When you walk through bakeries, you typically see most of the labor in these areas.”
As more companies consider integrating robots, including smaller bakeries that may not have been automation candidates in the past, the use of robot simulation software makes it possible for bakers to visualize how these units can be used in their facilities, according to Mr. Gales. “Watching an image of a robot moving their product or pans in a real-time simulation gives a baker confidence in the potential for automation,” he added. “First-time robot users invariably have questions about future increases in capacity or means for manual backup in case of system failure. A simulation can answer these types of contingency questions with a high-degree of accuracy.”
Mr. Feix pointed out that the improvement and reliability of robotic projects installed by De La Ballina has been possible because of the company’s know-how in vision systems such as 3D Scan and specific proprietary software to treat the images and the development made on the way to handle the products. “Robotic solutions increase flexibility and productivity as well as quality when associated to a vision quality inspection and sorting system,” he said.
De La Ballina handles project engineering and supervision of robot integration, which reduces the investment made on the customer side.
While the cost of robots has declined in recent years, Mr. Hoskins said, “We are also not at the bottom of robot pricing yet; there is still more to come. As the relative price of robots falls, you will see more installations. Great opportunities for robotics exist in many applications where the payback is just barely out of reach, but as the price of robots falls and labor costs increase, we will see these applications revisited and eventually installed.”
Colborne Foodbiotics is an unbiased integrator of robotics with no contractual obligations to any one robot manufacturer, according to Mr. Hoskins. “We feel this is a very important factor in our ability to install the most efficient system possible,” he added. “Because we are not obligated to select a particular robot, or robot manufacturer, we evaluate a process at a higher level and consider all factors in a solution like upstream and downstream processes, future flexibility, etc. Once we have evaluated all of these factors, we then research the robots and pick a robot based on the attributes we believe are most important for the process we are automating.”
As more robot applications are successfully implemented into bakeries, there is less intimidation and greater acceptance of the technology. Mr. Lomerson said bakeries look at other bakeries and see the need to include robotics to be competitive, as this technology helps reduce overhead, improve quality, increase production and minimize waste.
AMF developed a user-friendly HMI/PLC-based controls for its robotic technology, which helps eliminate the need for special robotic training, according to Mr. Lomerson. The patent-pending controls manage robot movements, speeds and recipes from the HMI, he added.
Finally, there is significant growth potential for robots in bread and bun operations, according to Mr. Lomerson. “Robotic loading of bread and bun products into baskets, trays and corrugated cases is a current and future need,” he said. “Pan and lid stacking and unstacking is also an area where bakeries are willing to adapt robotic technology versus the conventional mechanical technology. The robotic solution is faster and gentler on pans and lids.”