Advances in robotic software combined with new gripping technology have made pick-and-place machines attractive options for miniature products not going through a vertical form/fill/seal machine.

Cavanna Packaging recently developed a new tool that can lift a flaky croissant without crushing it, then load it into an infeeder for a wrapper. The gentle method uses vision technology to locate the baked food on a belt, then a Delta robot reaches over and grabs it with a specially designed tool that uses both a combination of suction and proprietary light grip technology. This tool can select small muffins, cupcakes, Danish and more. The Delta-armed robot operates at about 86 delicate pieces per minute.

“The robot rotates around to match an item, picks it up and rotates it again as it goes to place it,” explained Bill Kehrli, vice-president of sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging. “It uses electronic tracking of the belt of the flowwrapper to guarantee it puts it in the exact same spot every time while the belt is moving.”

Vision systems provide a key element of quality control. Today’s robots not only keep products in control during the pick-and-place process, but they also perform quality control, said Eric Aasen, product sales manager, Bosch Packaging Technology.

“Since the robots are instructed to only pick products that meet certain dimensional requirements, any product that does not fit these dimensions will be discarded,” he said.

Bosch launched an enhanced version of its stand-alone Presto D3 top-loading collator. For improved quality protection and accurate filling, the Presto D3 collator is equipped with an air-blow ejection system that rejects products that are out of specification. For non-stop machine operation, the reject station is followed by a new automatic unjamming device.

“This way, without any operator intervention, it actively controls product jams while the machine continues to run at full speed,” Mr. Aasen said.

BluePrint Automation (BPA) offers tools like vision and thermal imaging to ensure proper product alignment at high speeds. The vision and thermal imaging systems see the location and stock-keeping unit of the product and communicate that information to the robotic arm. The robotic arm then picks and rotates the product to place it in its package with proper orientation.

Related Reading“If required, additional sensors can be incorporated to verify proper placement,” said Mike Rebollo, Southwest regional sales manager, BPA. “These systems work extremely well with miniatures.”

Suppliers often partner with robotics companies to enhance their flowwrappers and other primary packaging machines. Shuttleworth collaborated with Fanuc America and Soft Robotics to create product handling systems that can delicately manipulate random products.

“These types of partnerships have allowed robotic system integrators to develop solutions to meet the customer’s challenging needs,” said Michael Liu, engineering manager, Shuttleworth.

Formost Fuji collaborates with robotics companies both in front of and behind its flowwrappers. Dennis Gunnell, vice-president of sales and marketing, Formost Fuji, explained that the better the product is fed into the wrapping machine, the more efficiently the wrapper is going to run. He added that there is a difference between the level of product protection between mechanical and robotic automation.

Mechanical automation means the product needs to either be pushed, pulled or accumulated by means of belts and conveyors that the product may not tolerate. Although this option is often less expensive, it may not meet the requirements of the product.

“If producers have a system that doesn’t meet that need or the configuration of product on the belt doesn’t suit the wrapper, then we’ll steer them toward robotics,” Mr. Gunnell said.

The biggest key to success is communication up and down the line. Mr. Gunnell suggested bakers should let packaging suppliers know what is happening to the package downstream. If robots are packaging a half-dozen miniature products into a carton, Formost Fuji flowwrappers can count products and insert a gap using a shift mechanism to feed them down the line six at a time.

“By doing that, it’s feeding to the robot what it needs for that operation,” he said. “It really comes down to communication between all the people on the line and knowing what the downstream or upstream system might do.”