KANSAS CITY — Necessity may be the mother of invention, but what bakers and snack makers need the most today is automation that can solve a host of workplace and bottleneck issues in their packaging departments. Fortunately, a steady stream of innovation over the past five years has allowed robotic systems to alleviate these issues more effectively than in the past.

A decade ago, for instance, 2-D grayscale vision systems were the standard for locating products on pick-and-place robotic systems. Experts at the Pack Expo show in Chicago noted the camera, located above the conveyor belt, requires some type of top light or back light to create contrast between the products and the belt so that the robotic system could pick and place them properly.

During the past three years, however, 3-D vision cameras that don’t need such additional lighting have emerged as the standard because they create a three-dimensional shape, which provides greater accuracy when picking and placing items. The camera helps determine if one part of a package is thicker or higher than the other and thus indicates to the robotic arm to place it in a carton correctly.

Although the systems have been around for 15 years, the number of companies making 3-D vision cameras has increased. This has resulted in greater availability and greater competition that has driven the price down. In many cases, 3-D systems now cost about the same as 2-D cameras together with the lights needed to filter out any external lighting in a plant.

Overall, it’s not only technology that’s advancing. It’s also the rate in which bakeries are incorporating it into their operations.