The Smart, Modular and Automated Plant

Conveyor and robotic material handling answer the call for high productivity in challenging applications.

By Bob Sperber, Plant Operations Editor

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The solution came with multiple conveyors that arranged the tubs into organized groups of 24 items. These organized groups fed a robot installed at the end of the line, which picked and packed a layer at a time into the case, adding a paperboard divider between them stabilize the contents.

"I didn't find out until afterward, but Panera had called several robotic case-packing companies around the country, and none of them had a cost-effective solution for the project," says Laverdiere, "because it was a very customized project for this application."

Many food processors are skeptical that robots are too expensive and difficult to maintain, and they require staff with specialized knowledge to maintain them. "I can't say some of that's not true," Laverdiere says. "[But] one robot can do the work of several people. When you start to look at the numbers, all of a sudden, robots don't look that expensive in terms of getting a return on your investment."

When plants find themselves growing but don't have the capital for physical expansion projects, robots are an option. The question is: What is the optimal configuration with minimal floor space that produces the speed and throughput you need?

The answer is different for everyone, says Sal Spada, research director covering production machinery at consultancy ARC Advisory Group (, Dedham, Mass. But with floor space at a premium in many plants, robots can add flexibility and accomplish tasks that would otherwise require conveyors with impossibly tight-radius turns.

"Instead of using long conveyors that shuttle products around in different directions, a robot can 'decide' how to move things from one location to the next," Spada says. "We see this in the food & beverage market, especially on packaging lines." He notes that many plants that are increasing throughput but cannot yet budget a major capital project to expand might find robots a viable alternative for keeping or adding a packaging operation.

Justifiably smart
The rise of "smart conveyors" equipped with sensors, vision, motion and other control technologies is a direct response to plants' need for speed, quality, safety, energy savings and data to drive improvements such as business analytics. Smaller, more flexible conveyors are teaming with equally compact control systems. Compact, efficient motors and gearboxes are replacing large energy hogs, and conveyor modules are moving toward control cabinets with self-contained AC drive and embedded programmable controllers.

Although automation can be costly, the cost often can be justified by the elimination of product gaps, pile-ups and downtime. Longer-term, onboard controllers can share data, reduce energy and improve productivity in much the same way as any piece of computer-controlled equipment. Energy savings is a major driver of payback calculations that carries both short- and long-term savings along with a "green" corporate patina.

"A lot of older conveyors are running all the time, whether they have material on them or not," Spada says. Today's smart technology lets equipment stop running based on various types of sensors to fit the application, just as warehouse lighting systems turn themselves off to save energy. And when a "wake-up" signal arrives that product is coming, the conveyor can automatically start-up again. Likewise, it can signal downstream equipment that product is on the way. "That is a big energy saver in some large conveyance operations," Spada says.

When noise is a health hazard, ultra-quiet and highly precise roller conveyors that put individual servomotor controls in each roller are an option. Circuit board manufacturers and other light, hybrid, manual-and-automated assembly operations were early adopters of these conveyors, which also are offered by food equipment suppliers. Another safety factor are the guards that prevent workers from getting hurt, from gates that require manual lockout/tag-out before a worker can go near a conveyor or robot to sensor-activated systems that shut down machinery when human activity is detected.

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