When comparing cobots to traditional robotic systems, the initial challenge involves determining which one is best for the job, especially for bakers and snack makers who are new to this type of automation.

Often the main differentiators include price, flexibility and ease of use.

“For bakeries new to automation, cobots represent a more cost-effective and simple way to introduce automation into their plant,” said noted Ken Mentch, automation sales manager, Middleby Bakery.

“Cobots can execute a similar range of actions compared to conventional robots but typically at reduced payloads, reach and speed versus traditional industrial robotic systems,” he added. “Cobots, though, typically have a much smaller footprint, are simpler to implement, easier to relocate and more adaptable to various applications.”

Jamie Bobyk, marketing manager, Apex Motion Control, noted cobots can eliminate repeated lifting of boxes for palletizing with the company’s Baker-Bot MAX, capable of lifting 44 lbs.

Moreover, Karen Mallouk, co-founder, AAA20 Group, suggested that cobots offer labor savings for end-of-line palletizing in bakeries that use lightweight boxes of muffins or other baked goods that are under 35 lbs for transportation.

“Palletizers are the final stage of automation, where the speed is already at its lowest, making it an ideal application for a collaborative palletizing solution,” she explained. “The main benefits of using a collaborative palletizer include a lower investment and a significantly smaller footprint.”

Ms. Mallouk added the adoption of robotics is faster than in the past, but much slower when compared to other sectors such as home care and personal care.

“A bakery with more than 150 people is likely ready for some form of automation,” she said. “It’s important to remember that automation is a journey and bakeries will learn how to effectively manage robots, starting with a lower investment through renting a robot and determining if it’s a good fit. For collaborative palletizers, the number of SKUs is not an issue as they will end the line on a box and these boxes do not vary drastically for each SKU, which is different from the primary packaging where there are significant variations in packaging.”

Automation of filling or cartoning in the packaging department has become more efficient over the years. Specifically, robots provide a high degree of flexibility and simplicity to replace labor.

That’s why Schubert has developed the Cobot tog.519 (tog. stands for together), which can run at high speeds, said Giorgio Calorio, sales account manager at Schubert North America.

“There are situations in which bakers could eventually use Schubert’s tog.519 to put decorations on cakes or even assemble kits for kids like gingerbread houses,” he said.

Rick Hoskins, chief executive officer, Colborne Foodbotics, mentioned that the company focuses on high-speed operations. Typically, he said, robotics are faster than cobots, while cobots take up much less space because of the lack of guarding required. While there have been advances in robotic safety, bakers tend to prefer standard perimeter fencing due to the extra layer of protection it provides. 

Likewise, BluePrint Automation has historically supplied larger robotic systems geared toward high-rate secondary packaging loading or high-sanitation, direct-contact food manipulation. 

“Tasks where the cobots are going to be working in close quarters with humans or situations where the robot needs to be mobile and move from line to line are best suited to cobots,” said Michael Cothran, north central sales manager, BluePrint Automation (BPA). “Small-scale palletizing is a great application for these units.” 

In addition to a smaller footprint, cobots offer a relative ease of programming.

“The most obvious place to use cobots is in palletizing cells, where the case weight and speed are not enormous,” Mr. Cothran observed. “The biggest limits of these systems are the weight restrictions and speed restrictions of the cobots. Usually, to reach taller pallets or applications, the robots need to be mounted on a large pedestal or be able to actuate up and down as needed. This eats into their cost and space efficiencies.”

On the flipside, he said, delta robots are “wicked fast,” capable of cycling at 100 picks a minute in certain circumstances. Reach, however, can be a challenge with these robots, so deeper corrugated boxes or regular slotted cases can be difficult to fit within a delta robot’s picking window.

“Six-axis robots can solve this reach challenge, but they do not cycle at nearly the rate of the delta,” Mr. Cothran explained. “This means your cycles need to be more efficient at picking multiple products at a time or more robots will be required. Systems designed around bulk products and variety packs, like our BPA bulk product feeder, have made big strides in the last decade, especially as variety packs continue to grow in popularity. These systems will work, but they do require a large number of footprints to operate.”

Craig Souser, president and CEO, JLS Automation, said the company does not use cobots due to rate and payload limitations, but they are being used by some customers for light-duty palletizing. He offered a couple of suggestions when selecting the most appropriate robot for the job.

“As far as criteria, pick applications that will be successful — ones where the supplier has specific experience,” he recommended. “Also, don’t go for the big payoff projects off the bat. Start small, get comfortable, build confidence with your team, and then go with larger scale solutions. Obviously, look at the vendors that you are considering to make certain that they have appropriate experience and are committed to supporting the bakery market.”

Mr. Bobyk pointed out that cobots were never designed to compete with their robotic counterparts.

“Cobots are designed to somewhat mimic the behavior and speed of a human worker,” he said.

In addition, Mr. Bobyk said, the Baker-Bot comes with toolless changeover of end effectors.

“If you have several cobots on a line, they can all be performing different tasks and help with the labor crisis we are dealing with in the baking industry,” he observed. “They are also very easy to use, just like using a smart phone.”

Cobots can decorate cupcakes, bars and cookies, or move trays and pans from a rack or cart to a conveyor.

“They remove these physical tasks from your production workers and perform them all day long without a single complaint,” Mr. Bobyk said.

For heavier lifting, Mr. Mentch said, bakers might consider automated-guided vehicles (AGVs) or laser-guided vehicles (LGVs), which can be used to automatically move “load units” from one location to another. 

“We apply our AGVs and LGVs to common logistical bakery tasks, such as transporting baking pans between storage and robotic stackers/unstackers, supporting the robots through pan storage and retrieval of each pan type as required,” he explained. “They can transport troughs between mixers and the fermentation room or baskets throughout the bakery — empty from the dock to the unstackers and full from the production line back to the shipping dock.”

With robotics being used throughout bakeries, be sure to check their level of sanitation standards, especially if a system is being used in food production that had previously been used in the packaging department.

“You can buy many robots that are full washdown models that were designed to be used in USDA or other high-sanitation areas,” Mr. Hoskins said. “However, the industry is moving the target with respect to what is a high-sanitation area. So traditional packaging robots that have been limited to no sanitary characteristics are being implemented into areas that 10 years ago were not considered sanitary areas, but they are today.”

He expects robotic suppliers will adapt to this new sanitary standard and create opportunities for these robots to meet the higher sanitary requirements.

Overall, Mr. Calorio said, baking and snack companies are now looking for robotics with a maximum ROI of two to three years. However, it all depends on the application, the degree of complexity and the tools involved to do the system right. 

“In bakeries, we deal with products that are essentially ‘alive’ due to proofing and changing their shapes, even during baking,” he said. “It is essential to have knowledge of the products to avoid damaging them, especially when they’re running at high speeds.”

For bakeries that don’t have the large capital budget for a major investment, Ms. Mallouk suggested exploring Robotics as a Service (RaaS) where companies can essentially rent a robotic system to see if it fits their operations.

With RaaS, the robotic company sets up a system and maintains it. The bakery just pays an hourly fee, which can be expensive, but it frees up cash and takes the risk out of investing in robotics. If bakers want to purchase the system, they can do so after a trial period. 

“There’s no commitment,” Ms. Mallouk explained. “It’s like Amazon Prime. You can return it whenever you want, buy it or keep paying rent.”

This article is an excerpt from the April 2023 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Robotics, click here.