In the first quarter, North American robotic companies shattered the 2012 opening quarter record for robots ordered by shipping a whopping 24.6% more than the previous high, according to the Robotics Industries Association (RIA).

Robot sales for food and consumer goods posted double-digit growth year over year in first three months, and the category represented one of several that RIA pointed out had “especially strong” activity. The association estimated US factories use some 228,000 robots, placing it second only to Japan. However, this represents only the tip of the iceberg as to what robots could be doing in US manufacturing plants.

“Many observers believe that only about 10% of US companies that could benefit from robots have installed any so far,” said Jeff Burstein, RIA president, “and among those that have the most to gain from robots are small to medium-sized companies.”

Many manual packaging operations in the baking and snack industries could take advantage of robots, said Craig Collett, director, robotic and wrapper product line, Bosch Packaging Technology, New Richmond, WI. “We see really a large number of opportunities specifically for case packing and carton loading,” he noted.

Truthfully, the baking industry continues to be in its infancy in regard to integrating robotics, according to Paul Hill, vice-president of development, ABI Automation, Concord, ON. He joined the company five years ago after working for a number of years in robotics in other fields such as the automotive industry, which he pointed out is much further along with integrating them into their operations.

Defining and applying robots

What are robots, and what are their most popular ­applications? An industrial robot, according to RIA, is “an automatically controlled, reprogrammable multipurpose manipulator programmable in three or more axes which may be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.”

Using this definition, AMF Bakery Systems, Richmond, VA, integrated 4-axis robots into applications ranging from palletizing cases to picking and placing a wide variety of products, said John Keane, the company’s executive product manager of packaging and automation.

“Some consider gantry applications robotic, although they don’t meet the three or more axes definition,” he observed. “They provide the same pick-and-place functionality as a robot but are limited by the lack of additional axes of motion.”

While traditionally used in manufacturing for arc and spot welding, painting and assembly, in bakeries and snack processing, robots likely would be employed for loading cardboard shipping cases or plastic baskets, inserting slip sheets between layers, handling pans and lids, and palletizing cases onto shipping pallets. “While these are the ones that come to mind,” Mr. Keane said, “the usage of robotics will expand as baking and snack manufacturers continue to automate repetitive and repeatable functions in their plants.”

Current advances enable integrators to replace virtually any manual operation in bakery production with a robot, according to Alex Kuperman, president of ABI Automation. “The only limiting factor is space,” he said.

The company integrates robots in bakery processes “starting in makeup all the way through packaging,” Mr. Kuperman noted. Some of its robotic applications include depanning bread after the freezer, cake decorating, water-jet cutting waffle sheets prior to packaging, positioning pizza dough balls into store trays, placing pastries and other sweet goods into merchandising containers, dipping cinnamon rolls into an icing glaze, and scoring rolls.

Getting a good grip

New end-of-arm tools (EAOT), also known as end-­effectors or grippers, have enabled bakeries to depan and package a greater variety of bakery and snack products. Packaging robots can be broken into two categories: Primary systems pick and place raw product into infeeds for flowwrappers or other packaging equipment while secondary systems put packaged goods into cartons and shipping cases or palletize packed cases.

Automating the depanning and packing of muffins and snack cakes into various configurations such as bulk packs, two-piece plastic packs and clamshells represents the latest robotics trend, according to Rick Hoskins, director of sales and marketing, Colborne Foodbotics, Lake Forest, IL.

“These systems are unique in that they handle many packaging varieties as opposed to previous systems that have typically been dedicated to a particular packaging configuration or two,” he said. “The development of our automated tool-change process has really made these applications more feasible.”

To assist bakeries when picking and placing different varieties, ABI Automation developed a quick-exchange feature for its tooling designs for delta-style robots, Mr. Hill noted. “We have made it very lightweight and easy to change,” he explained.

Dunbar Systems, Lemont, IL, in conjunction with Benda Manufacturing Inc. (BMI), Tinley Park, IL, integrated a robot that tracks the movement of the baking pan in the oven and then pneumatically lifts the product from pans. “Once picked, the product centers are adjusted to the plastic tray centers and are placed in a plastic tray,” said Todd Frandsen, BMI’s operations manager. “The robot depans 144 pieces of product per pick and makes more than eight picks per minute.”

One of AMF’s most recent installations was also on a secondary packaging application on a cake and muffin line, in which it integrated three 4-axis robots to pick baked foods in dome and clamshell containers and place them into cardboard shipping cases. “With each different product, a uniquely different EOAT was required to handle the variety of products run on this line,” Mr. Keane said.

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 its AutoEye vision systems for top and bottom vision-inspection prior to loading the naked product.

SAS Automation, Xenia, OH, designs and builds EOATs for all robots in the market, and it introduced end-effectors to handle baked foods more efficiently, according to Nick Rigola, the company’s national sales manager. Bakery products can be challenging to depan as they are often fragile and topped with fruit, nuts or candies. That prompted SAS to develop stainless steel needle grippers that use four curved needles to depan each muffin. The first such system it built picked 144 muffins, two pans at a time, and it has since created EOATs to depan 12, 24 and 48 muffins at a time.

In addition to the needle grippers, SAS also builds EAOTs that use food-grade vacuum cups for depanning baked foods.

While the actual robots being integrated have not changed much in recent years, Mr. Collett said EOATs have progressed, providing gentler product handling as well as more robust, reliable and efficient operation. Many advances also have been made to the robots’ software and control systems, he added.

Robotics going mainstream

The ability to use industry-standard PLCs to control and interface with robots has increased their acceptance within the baking industry, Mr. Keane observed.

“The typical 4-axis robot OEM controls are different enough to require the engineers responsible for maintaining them to have specialized training,” he said. “Some robot OEMs have become more flexible with baking industry standard controllers, but seeing this need, AMF integrated Fanuc robots using an Allen-Bradley PLC and interface making the OEM interface almost unnecessary. This gives the plant a level of comfort knowing they have knowledge of the hardware and software used in our robotic equipment.”

Gaining acceptance that robotic solutions are user-friendly and easy-to-maintain remains one of the greatest challenges to bakery integration, according to Ken Mentch, vice-president, sales and marketing, Workhorse Automation, Oxford, PA. The company installs fully automated pan- and lid-handling systems in which all production line startups and changeovers are operator-free.

“The robotic stacker/unstacker is designed to provide a gentle, product-friendly and accurate high-speed stacking system for all bakery pan, lid, peel board and basket requirements,” he said. “The standard stacker/unstacker incorporates an intuitive Allen-Bradley control scheme, which is user- and maintenance-friendly.”

Integrating a single robot that is capable of handling a variety of products in different shapes and sizes with minimal operator intervention makes the technology a winner for bakeries, Mr. Keane said. “The ability to repurpose the robot in the future adds to the appeal,” he added.

Should a bakery’s needs change, the ability to move a 4-axis robot to a different application is appealing to end users, Mr. Keane said. With dedicated equipment designs, he noted, this ability is highly limited.

While it’s important that robot interfaces are user-friendly, Mr. Hill said it is just as important to build flexible systems that will adapt to new products because bakeries are always marketing products in new packaging formats. Also, he pointed out that robots can be repurposed within plants if needed, pointing out that the robot the company integrated for dipping cinnamon rolls into icing could be a palletizing robot if programmed as such.

Robotics for the next generation

Attitudes toward robotic installations are changing, ­especially once bakers learn about their capabilities, flexibility and cost, said Mr. Frandsen, pointing out that Dunbar Systems looks at all robotic technology available and then chooses the best system for the specific need.

“The relative ease of owning and operating a robot has been increasing over the past several years,” he explained. “The production facilities do not have to employ a robot specialist to run them on a daily basis, making this option more viable in a production environment.”

Mr. Kuperman said he has observed a tremendous shift in attitudes toward robotics in recent years. “Robots are becoming commonplace, and more and more people are accepting the advantages that they afford,” he added. “The integration of robotics offers labor savings, precision and accuracy in an environment where repetitive labor, an aging labor force and the high cost of employment make it hard for bakers to find people to work on the line.

“Despite the changes,” Mr. Kuperman continued, “we still have some progress to make before everyone in the industry will view robotics as an everyday tool that will improve production efficiencies.”

Because robots’ costs have come down drastically, more bakers are looking at integrating them.

“Robotic technology has substantially impacted the baking industry the past several years,” Mr. Mentch concluded. “Integrating robotics into bakeries provides the flexibility to drive down costs, improve quality and expand capacity.”

Robotic integration most likely will only grow stronger as the next wave of bakers becomes more dominant in the baking industry. “The truth is, the younger generation is not looking to do as much manual labor, and they are extremely computer savvy,” Mr. Hill observed. “So robots are a good fit.”

Robots will be as much a part of the next generation of high-speed bakeries as the young people that help to operate them.