They don’t call in sick, get injured or file for workers’ compensation. They don’t take coffee or smoke breaks, or even use the restroom. Bakeries don’t have to pay unemployment insurance or social security taxes for them, and they work every shift of every day. Who are these super-employees?

They are robots. Although they’re not coming to take over the world or even your bakery, more robotic systems are being employed in packaging areas of baking and snack operations — and they don’t even require background checks before hiring.

“Fanuc robots typically have a mean time between failures of approximately eight years operating around the clock,” said Rick Hoskins IV, vice-president, sales and marketing, Colborne Foodbotics, Lake Forest, IL. “They are virtually maintenance-free. When designed and installed properly, robotic systems will be the smoothest part of your production/packaging line with the least amount of downtime.”

Operator training is simple, he added, as there are only a few buttons to push to restart robotic packaging cells that operate on demand without a dedicated operator.

Advancing end effectors

While reduced labor costs represent a primary reason companies install robots, their use affords additional benefits such as increased processing rates as well as greater flexibility in products and shipping containers handled, according to John J. Keane III, executive product manager, packaging and automation, AMF Bakery Systems, Richmond, VA. They also reduce repetitive-motion injuries and maintenance time required compared with conventional packaging equipment, he added

AMF’s recent installations have involved robots loading products such as bagged breads, rolls and English muffins; packaged cookies; standup pouches of croutons as well as unbagged crouton bread; and fruit pies into their shipping containers.

“All were loaded by the robot into plastic single-layer shipping containers as well as dual-layer cardboard corrugate cases with U-board insertion to protect the bottom layer,” Mr. Keane said.

PLC programming for robotics control reduces the need for additional robot programmer training and support, he added. And AMF designs and programs end-of-arm tools (EOATs) in ways to limit the number of EOAT changeover requirements. Being able to change tooling on robotic systems imparts flexibility that is not possible through traditional hard automation.

LeMatic, Inc., Jackson, MI, integrates robots for both primary and secondary packaging applications under its AutoOp product line. With primary packaging lines, the company also recommends use of its AutoEye vision systems for quality inspections. Robots are tools of automation, and as such, companies install them to reduce the number of people working on packaging lines. But without machine vision for quality inspection, D.J. LeCrone, LeMatic’s CEO, said these lines will still require workers to remove out-of-spec product. Therefore, the company often installs top and bottom vision-inspection systems prior to loading the naked product.

“One of the concerns bakeries and snack food manufacturers have is that robots will not be able to inspect their products like a person can when packing it; hence, quality control will go down,” said John French, director, projects and applications, BluePrint Automation, Inc., Colonial Heights, VA. “In fact, the opposite may be true — robotic systems, in some instances, can do a much better job.”

The robotics integrator has begun offering more sophisticated vision systems for product acquisition, quality inspection and other vision-related tasks on the front end of its robotic packaging systems, Mr. French noted.

Delkor Systems, Inc., Minneapolis, MN, recently began offering a robotic loader for nutrition and snack bars. The line uses a delta-style robot and picks oriented product and loads it in a carton; however, the company also will look to use machine vision to assist with picking randomly oriented product, according to Mike Wilcox, Delkor’s vice-president of sales, marketing and after market.

Improvements in modeling the airflow of its vacuum end effectors led Bosch Packaging Technology, New Richmond, WI, to advanced designs that allow its robots to securely pick a wider range of raw or packaged products at high speeds, said Craig Collett, the company’s director, robotic and wrapper product line.

Although floor space requirements for a robot cell vs. prior loading requirements might be advantageous, robotic systems still may require an area that some plants may not have to spare. “Designs need to be creative and highly flexible to fit into an existing plant short on floor space,” Mr. Keane said. “An articulating-arm robot adapts well into an existing plant while maximizing its functions.”

Simplifying controls

In addition to vision technology, Mr. Hoskins noted that control options that simplify synchronization with related accessories represents the most important developments in robotic technologies for bakeries.

Although they are shrinking in physical size, robot control panels have greater capability to simplify control development and design. Many of Colborne Foodbotics’ systems are structured on a single layer of control using standard Fanuc PLC controllers. “This cuts cost and makes future troubleshooting much easier,” Mr. Hoskins said. “Today’s technology in both areas is far better than it was only five years ago.”

Two other areas he said are currently under development include higher levels of sanitation and operating robots in cold environments such as a freezer.

Some small and mid-sized companies may be reluctant to install robotics to improve their operations because they don’t believe they will have the resources needed internally such as a top-notch technician to program and troubleshoot the system. However, today’s systems are much easier to program.

“Today, a programmer actually looks like he is playing a video game in slow motion,” Mr. Hoskins said.

Calculating returns 

Because of increased food safety and allergen concerns, Bosch has experienced greater demand for its robotic equipment. “Robotics limit the contact food has with people along the packaging line and are also easier to clean than other product feeding systems,” Mr. Collett said.

In general, bakeries want a return on investment (ROI) of a year to 18 months when implementing automation solutions, he said. “When robotics hit this mark, then it makes sense to implement,” Mr. Collett added. “A relatively straightforward calculation and discussion with an experienced robot supplier can help bakeries determine if robotics make sense for their operation.”

When a bakery recognizes all of the tangible and intangible savings automation brings, ROIs between one to two and a half years are easily achieved, according to Mr. Keane. Easily overlooked intangibles, he said, include repetitive-motion injuries, employee turnover impacts and inefficiencies associated with manual labor.

Taking into consideration all identified savings, Colborne Foodbotics standardized a format for doing the payback analysis. “We start the process internally before even preparing a budget proposal, and we sometimes quickly determine that an acceptable payback is just not possible,” said Mr. Hoskins, noting a two-year ROI is readily acceptable by most companies. “At that point, we may recommend another alternative solution to their needs.”

Colborne Foodbotics’ recent installations include depanning and packing muffins, cupcakes and pastries; case packing a variety of cake products, bagels and English muffins; and stacking and loading Texas toast into a carton infeed.

“Many robot manufacturers have developed user-friendly tools to make working with robots much easier and safer,” Mr. Hoskins said. “Along with these tools, integrators offer support programs with regular interval visits to assist end users in achieving maximum capabilities of their people and robots.”

Prioritizing projects

Reducing headcount often serves Colborne Foodbotics with a way to prioritize multiple projects within a plant. “However, when we learn more about other issues in that plant, we adjust course and focus on the biggest savings and customer perceived problem,” Mr. Hoskins said.

“In the end, robotic cost justifications are established by specific needs of our clients, and we work together to generate a system that meets their objectives and financial justification,” he continued. “Our standardized budget pricing process works quite well and is designed to quickly determine solid cost justification before moving to the depth of a final proposal.”

To help bakeries keep capital costs lower, Mr. Hoskins said, the company’s robotics group installs technology that uses complex servo systems employing a broad variety of EOATs and compact align mechanism that it developed long before robots were commercially viable.

As robots find use in more applications, their prices will continue to fall. “If the costs associated with robotic technologies reduce over time and bakeries become more receptive to robots performing more functions, I believe there is the potential for multiple robotic solutions to work in concert with each other to perform multiple machine functions at once,” Mr. Keane added.