In baking and snack plants, miniature products can slash capacity if manual packers cannot keep up with the maximum throughput farther up the line. So, to compensate, companies reduce their pieces per hour to match packaging speeds, whether manual or automated.

“The human arm can only operate at a specific rate for a specific length of time,” said Mike Rebollo, Southwest regional sales manager, BluePrint Automation (BPA). “Recent advancements in end-of-arm tooling are enabling food-handling robots to pick and place more products than ever.”

Manual rates can vary, where robotics run unremittingly. BPA’s delta robotic arms can make more than 100 picks per minute when handling miniature products over a short distance. Its robotics’ rates vary based on product weight, rotations required and distance traveled, but the accuracy and precision of the system is hard to match.

“It is not unusual to see a system maintaining a few millimeter tolerance over many years,” Mr. Rebollo said. “This becomes more important when handling small products.”

Every millimeter matters when feeding unprotected products into packaging machinery. Bill Kehrli, vice-president of sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging, said that when dealing with small, delicate products in primary packaging, bakeries need to decide which form of automation fits them best. For example, a light flaky croissant can’t be banged around with belts, pushers and conveyors. There is also risk of breakage for products if they are manually picked and placed into a packaging machine because the orientation and handling of the product will vary.

“In the past, you would rely on people to gently pick it and place it into the infeeder for the flowwrapper,” Mr. Kehrli said. “With this new technology, which is actually gentler than people, we can do this automatically.”

Eric Aasen, product sales manager, Bosch Packaging Technology, said manually handling miniature products is difficult because human dexterity is impossible to calculate.

“Robots do not have this challenge and can therefore handle the products much easier and faster,” he said.

For example, Bosch’s machines for feeding unwrapped products into primary packaging machines can be placed in a series to form high-volume picking lines. For secondary packaging, such as the loading of wrapped products into cartons, cases and thermoforms, speeds up to 500 products per minute can be expected for a single collation machine. Other configurations will allow for higher rates. For specific applications, individual robot speeds can go up to 200 products per minute, and vision guidance can be added for quality inspection and precise picking of non-aligned products.

“Adding robots to production lines can significantly speed up the packaging process, depending on individual product characteristics,” Mr. Aasen said.