Case erectors and packers have greatly lessened workforces required on the back end of lines, and even if boxes are still being manually palletized, companies can generally automate the erecting, taping and filling of cardboard boxes for a wide variety baked foods and snacks.
Designing case packing applications for a wide variety of products — in size, shape, rate, pack patterns and case sizes — is a challenge. Roland Lomerson, director of automation, AMF Bakery Systems, Richmond, VA, suggested that tooling should be designed for quick changeovers and programmed recipes be written to make the changes from one product to another as pain-free and as fast as possible.
It is advantageous for robotic equipment to use adjustable tooling. “Replacement tooling requires storage and can be mishandled and damaged, so there is more design emphasis toward making it adjustable versus replaceable,” Mr. Lomerson said. “Tooling flexibility is a huge value when the case packing process requires multiple products to be run on the same machine. Designing the collation tooling and the end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) for adjustment versus replacement eliminates the need for tooling storage and, in most cases, reduces the overall changeover time from product to product.”
To this end, AMF offers an articulating robot loader that can load bakery baskets, trays, regular- and half-slotted cases (RSC and HSC), including “U” board insertion between product layers in the cases, using a single robot and a single EOAT. “The cell can be adjusted to accommodate a wide range of products as well as various pack patterns in any of the cases, bakery baskets and trays,” Mr. Lomerson said.
Additionally, the company has a patented design on a high-resolution, individually programmable vacuum EOAT that can form to an infinite number of products and patterns on the tooling and place them into cases, baskets or trays without a tooling change.
Another key is to minimize the time required between products by automating the position changes needed on guide rails, backstops and more. “It also eliminates the mistakes and misalignments made by the operators, which typically result in damaged and wasted product and slow startups,” Mr. Lomerson added.
Bakers and snack manufacturers “want to maximize case packer efficiency after changing over from one product to the next to have instantaneous startups and no ‘tune-in’ period,” noted Robbie Quinlin, marketing manager, BluePrint Automation (BPA), Colonial Heights, VA. “Changeover should be tool-less and automatic, without human subjectivity.
“Traditionally, changing over a machine for the next product/recipe code involves changing out belts, end-effectors, cassettes, etc.” he continued. “All of these changes coupled with the fine-tuning process drastically increases the time it takes for the operator to get the machine running back at maximum efficiency. Now, packaging systems with a more automated changeover process are being sought out to eliminate this down time and maximize machine efficiency.”
BPA designed a system that requires virtually no manual adjustments when changing products and case sizes. “Simply select your desired product code, and the end-effector and cassette automatically change over to your next recipe,” Mr. Quinlin observed. “Additionally, our new servo-driven flights eliminate the need for multiple sets of collation belts. After just a few guide adjustments, the system is once again ready for production.
“Our ultimate goal is to completely eliminate the fine-tuning that typically takes place after a changeover, providing our customers with a solution that bounces back to maximum efficiency after the changeover process is complete,” he added.
Another development from AMF manages backpressure of product infeed systems to provide a consistent amount of backpressure on soft bakery products, no matter how many products are accumulated. “This infeed system was designed in conjunction with the patented high-resolution EOAT that requires a consistent collated group of products during the picking and pattern formation on the tool,” Mr. Lomerson said. “Without the managed backpressure, the total number of products ready to be picked can vary significantly — due to the products being squeezed together — which will result in the products’ being misaligned with the tool and potentially mispicked and crippled.”
The inconsistency of the consumable corrugate material can be an issue that manufacturers may face with regard to case packing. Subpar quality and consistency in the consumables that are procured, or even recycled, often present a challenge to suppliers of automated case packing equipment, according to Erik Knight, manager, sales and marketing, North America, Focke & Co., Inc., Whitsett, NC.
“With the need to overcome corrugate conditions, Focke & Co. has taken a proactive approach to open the process windows further on its packaging equipment,” he said. “The ability to automate the loading of consumables onto machinery to allow a more continuous process and reduce labor has been a success for many years.”
And although Focke can successfully open process windows to overcompensate for irregularities in the corrugate, Mr. Knight noted that it often results in the expectation that any quality corrugate being supplied to the automation equipment should be able to be received without failure in the automated process. “As producers increase their volumes and step toward automation over manual operations, the process windows that are required of packaging automation becomes a focal point,” he added. “Often, what can be overcome with manual interventions is differently processed with automation.”
The company created the new Highly Flexible Packer (HFP) technology because it specifically engaged the snack food industry and understood its needs and desires, according to Mr. Knight, who referred to the unit as “a recent industry game-changer that will allow for a multitude of marketing and supply chain needs.”
Accordingly, Focke’s focus was on minimizing the equipment footprint, higher degrees of flexibility and a more sensible project approach to reuse assets already available at the producers’ sites. Also, at the heart of the HFP, he said, is gentle product handling, which reduces product waste and unnecessary breakage. Plus, the case packer has the dexterity to simulate packaging orientations that could not be accomplished using traditional packaging equipment platforms.
This often is a major challenge for producers as they are limited with technologies that have already been installed in their facilities, Mr. Knight said. “By modularizing the loading of the product and allowing the redeployment of existing erecting and closing assets, this flexible solution provides higher degrees of capabilities with a minimized investment,” he noted.
In addition, high-speed vision can be challenging for case packing operations, if the application requires a wide range of products with unique shapes and sizes, according to Mr. Lomerson. Removing manual case packing also results in the elimination of the final visual inspection that was made by the same operator who was packing the product, and Mr. Lomerson suggested that the vision should be added with the introduction of automating the case packing operation.
A key advancement in post packaging is the replacement of the operator’s visual inspection with an automated vision inspection system. When a case packing process is automated, the manual inspection is typically random and will be removed with the introduction of a fully automated process. “Using an automated vision system with an integrated reject station, the inspection can be accomplished with a higher degree of effectiveness and efficiency,” Mr. Lomerson said.
Case handling equipment has evolved in recent years to address the concerns and challenges that had been of issue to bakeries and snack manufacturers. Today, case erectors and packers are more reliable, allow for quicker changeovers, require less space and gently handle products such as bags of chips.
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Building a Case
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