In the age of technology, robots are often seen as the end-all solution. And they’re gaining even more prominence during the pandemic when social distancing and a limited workforce create specific challenges in the packaging area of a bakery plant. That said, it’s important for bakers to think first before jumping into the investment. Robots are innovative tools for automation, but having them for the sake of the novelty is counterproductive.

Incorporating robotics with horizontal form/fill/seal (HFFS) equipment can make a big difference for flexibility and worker relief, as long as the baker goes into it armed with the right information and strategy.

“Cavanna’s approach is that robots are a very good tool to have in the tool bag but not one to use for every application,” said Bill Kehrli, vice president, sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging USA. “When we partner with a bakery or snack company, we need to understand what their pain points are and how we can define flexibility and adaptability.”

 In the past decade, robotic technology was mostly used for secondary packaging. But the increased need for automation and flexibility is opening opportunities for robots to streamline the HFFS process as well as address not only shifting consumer demands but also new and very specific worker concerns. With new concerns over food safety and people safety, robotics in HFFS are the logical next step in the evolution of automation.

Consumer concerns create change

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has brought sweeping changes to every facet of American life, and how consumers view the safety of their food is no exception. This has meant serious implications for how baked foods and snacks are packaged.

“In the wake of widespread single-portion consumption, flexible production has become the bakery and snack industries’ new normal,” said Kelly Meer, product manager, Syntegon Technology. “Individual portion packs offer hygienic packaging at the sales point and are convenient for consumers. From a production standpoint, they can be challenging since they often create a bottleneck within the feeder; manufacturers have to pick and place the items into the flowwrapper while ensuring product quality.”

This is where robotics come into play for HFFS packaging.

“They handle single-serve really well because it’s much more difficult to have multiple items that have to be stacked or there’s more to do besides just picking up the product and putting it into a flighted conveyor where our equipment will wrap it,” said Dennis Gunnell, president, Formost Fuji Corp.

The primary concern is that the individual package provides the assurance of limited human interaction. So, when bakers are trying to meet that demand for several different configurations on one line, automation can help.

“Concerns regarding multiple items needing to be combined on a machine are quickly handled with our Reiser HFFS machinery,” said Mike McCann, packaging specialist, Reiser. The company offers several different tooling designs and changeover techniques to accommodate multiple products and sizes on one layout.

“This very quickly lends itself well to the robotic loading possibilities as a simple and solid choice, versus worrying about how to get enough people around the load area for that item,” he added.

Although research indicates that risk of COVID-19 exposure through surface contact is limited, consumers remain wary, and automation allows bakery and snack manufacturers to put them at ease.

“The fear of these issues and the potential for liability is a big factor in the decision to automate,” said Rich Arnold, vice president of sales, Benchmark, a ProMach brand.

He also pointed to concerns over cross-contamination.

“It adds a whole new dimension to business in these segments,” he said. “New safety protocols impact productivity and profitability. Where applicable, robotic systems offer a sterile and reliable solution.”

The robot relationship

When people think of a robot, they might imagine something out of a Star Wars movie. But the truth is that a robot isn’t usually humanoid but a technology intended to emulate human movement or even just help make life easier for the person performing that task.

A common application is robotic pick-and-place. For this, Reiser works with JLS Automation’s Osprey solutions to integrate robotics into its HFFS equipment.

“We were recently told that after a week of using our Osprey robotic case packer, a customer didn’t need employees to work on the weekend,” said Craig Souser, president and chief executive officer, JLS Automation.

When dealing with delicate products, robotic technology can be an effective tool for feeding HFFS machines.

“If a product is so fragile that it can’t handle being pushed around and manipulated, a robot is a great tool to use,” Mr. Kehrli said. “It can react softly and move things that other automation can’t.”

Angela McDaniel, marketing coordinator, Formost Fuji, noted that how the product gets to the infeed can make all the difference.

“It has to find that balance of being very gentle with the product but also being able to pick it up without it falling apart,” she said.

Downstream, robotic pick-and-place leads to further efficiencies, such as with BluePrint Automation (BPA)’s vision-guided systems for loading wraps into cartons or even a second HFFS infeed.

“Vision inspection allows for double wraps to easily be detected and rejected,” said Jerry Buckley, South Central sales manager, BPA. “Depending on the wrapper, it can also review for correct product size inside the wrapper and can orient wrapped products into the case, carton or wrapper infeed easily and at high speed.”

Making the decision to incorporate this technology into the packaging area is one that’s specific to each bakery operation, especially in terms of HFFS.

“There’s no doubt that food producers can see huge efficiency gains in the areas of volume, quality and safety through the use of robots,” Mr. Arnold said. “It becomes a very individual decision for the manufacturer as to whether they have the infrastructure to make the leap into that next generation of technology. And automation suppliers are working to make it simpler and more user-friendly, but it takes a different skill set to work on servos and robots than on sprockets and chains.”

Protection in the plant

COVID-19 concerns with baked foods and snacks are prevalent with consumers. Safety begins with the people right on the plant floor because the packaging area is the space where social distancing can be the hardest to achieve.

Mr. Arnold noted the risks that come with packaging line workers’ close proximity to one another.

“This environment greatly increases the risk of an outbreak in the plant, which could lead to a complete shutdown of the facility for cleaning and quarantining,” he said. “Robots can certainly help mitigate this risk.”

Formost Fuji is working with robotics to place items such as flatbread into a stack of six before feeding into the flowwrapper. This effectively limits the number of workers that could otherwise be crowding the machine.

“One machine could have four people around it, but the same throughput can happen with a couple of robots,”
Mr. Gunnell said.

Pandemic aside, robots alleviate several other challenges for packaging operators as well.

“Any time you reduce personnel from a manual loading process, the safety increases, and that reduces injury, repetitive motion and fatigue,” said Hugh Crouch, product manager, flow, for Harpak-Ulma.

This article is an excerpt from the October 2020 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on HFFS and robotics, click here.