While robotics may be old news in the large-scale facilities, many mid-size bakeries are now discovering it as a tool for packaging versatility. It’s important to know that flexibility is not always synonymous with adaptability, so bakers must think strategically on what they want to accomplish.

For example, flexibility pertains to alleviating changeover time with multiple pack sizes or a shift in product dimensions.

“Flowwrapping systems and robotics are very good for that flexibility,” said Bill Kehrli, vice president, sales and marketing, Cavanna Packaging USA.

With Harpak-Ulma automation, the technology is designed to match the changeover need.

“For example, if the horizontal form/fill/seal (HFFS) machine can operate with a simple 5-minute changeover from product to product, the automation needs to be designed around not adding to that time,” said John Weddleton, product manager, automation, Harpak-Ulma. “We can do this by designing gripper solutions that can handle several different sized products without any changeover.”

With robots, however, a common misconception follows, but the truth is that they don’t make life easier just by their sheer existence. Robotic equipment can do just about anything a human can do, but it can’t do everything.

“That’s the real challenge,” said Dennis Gunnell, president, Formost Fuji Corp.

“If you’re running a couple different products that are somewhat similar and putting them in the infeed single-serve, it can do a great job. But if you’re running everything under the sun, it, too, will have limitations.”

The difference is in a robot’s end-of-arm tooling ... as long as this aspect of the equipment is correctly suited to the product type and configuration.

“For picking up, moving and placing, robots do really well,” Mr. Gunnell added, “as long as the product will lend itself to doing that.”

Space savings can also accompany flexibility when HFFS systems work with robots.

“Once we have the die layout, the robotic cell area is quickly calculated, and we configure the space on the machine and the overall footprint to eliminate wasted length or width,” said Mike McCann, packaging specialist, Reiser.

Modern control methods that include robots as well as a host of other technology offer a wealth of flexibility for bakery and snack producers.

“Changeovers that were once an arduous job of replacing mechanical tooling and adjusting rails or formers can often be handled simply by pressing a button on the HMI screen,” said Rich Arnold, vice president of sales, Benchmark, a ProMach brand.

While incorporating robots into the packaging area doesn’t immediately and inherently solve every problem, strategically incorporating this technology with HFFS equipment can not only increase flexibility but also help streamline operations.

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