Automation Makes its Way Across the Plant Floor

Slowly but surely, robotics, vision systems and information networks are working their way across the plant floor.

By Mike Pehanich, Plant Operations Editor

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Control and automation advances in the food industry have seemed a long time in coming to many observers, but come they have.

Don't look to be dazzled by lots of gee-whiz gadgetry. The food industry is nothing if not practical. Keeping food safe and saving money remain top plant priorities. Productivity, efficiencies, security and safety still head the list of objectives.

Nevertheless, a handful of leading-edge technologies seem perfectly adept at just that. So things such as robotics, vision systems and sophisticated networking and communications are making inroads in food plants.

I, robot

The poster child of advanced automation is the robot, the multi-functional, programmable machine that is almost synonymous with high-tech equipment. Robots have made slow entry into the food industry, primarily due to their high cost and an old reputation for being slow.

"We have worked hard to improve our product lines in sanitary food applications, says Rick Tallian, segment manager for ABB Inc. (, a manufacturer of industrial robots based in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Robots have a special talent for careful and accurate handling of delicate product. Dramatic improvements in system speed, coupled with continued refinement of their pick-and-place capabilities, have enabled them to find niches in several industry segments.

"Robots are very good in picking, packing and palletizing operations," says Ann Smith, spokesperson at ABB, noting the use of robots in snack handling, cookie assembly and icing, and portioned meat handling. Credit improvements in speed, sanitary design, software and affordability for the expanded applications. Processors also are becoming more confident in robot use.

Smith reports that one pretzel manufacturer uses a robotic system to handle pretzels individually. The system, featuring the high-speed IRB 340, performs up to 150 "picks" per minute. But the pretzel maker's real productivity increase comes in the dramatic decrease in damaged product. The robot's picking capability is quick and deft.

Palletizing is probably the top job for robots in the food industry. A Fanuc robot performs that function at Forbes Chocolate.

Palletizing is probably the pre-eminent application for robots in the food industry. Forbes Chocolate, a Cleveland supplier of cocoa and flavorings, considered a robot for such an application. The facility had limited space available, however, so any system needed to fit in an area restricted by existing equipment and had to allow complete access to adjacent aisleways.

The palletizing system had to be capable of handling four different sizes and styles of bags and had to accommodate changes in each bag’s filled dimensions and firmness. The system also needed to be capable of palletizing the product on two different sizes of pallets and to different unit load heights. The pallet type and load heights were to be pre-specified based on Forbes’ customer requirements.

Fanuc Robotics (, Rochester Hills, Mich., supplied a system consisting of its own M-410iB robot, bag handling end-of-arm-tooling, in-feed accumulation conveyor, pallet accumulation conveyor, and a push button interface panel. The system is capable of 25 bags per minute.

Many of the systems designed for food are constructed of stainless steel, which has made them sanitary, safe and effective in meat applications, particularly frozen meat patties, as well as in lunch and frozen entrée "kitting" operations.

Requirements for sanitary handling and easy "cleanability" caused robot engineers to return to the drawing boards time and time again during development of food industry applications.

"We are in the early phases of deployment of this technology in the food industry," says Tallian, "although we have multiple applications within the top five food processing firms."

Several vendors report that second- and third-generation users of robotic systems are more confident now in their effectiveness. Many start with pick-and-place then add other downstream applications, particularly palletizing.

One reason for the growth may the software. "Today's software is very operator friendly," says Tallian. "These require some pretty intense algorithms to make them work, and it's easy to take them for granted. But it's not hard for operators or engineers to work with them today."

Payback on robotic systems today is generally 18 to 24 months, says Smith, and sometimes faster. And that's "hard" payback that does not factor in the "soft" benefits of ergonomics, reduced injury-related benefits, reduced staff turnover and retraining costs that accrue to frequent employee turnover. Absenteeism is high among workers who perform highly repetitive activities. The psychological and physical drain of such work slows production even when workers remain on the job.

Robots are paired with an automated shuttle system at the Pepperidge Farm plant in Bloomfield, Conn., to deliver pans. "They have 13 different pan types at different storage locations delivering to three production lines at the plant," says Jeremy Kopicz, project engineer for Genesys Controls, a Lancaster, Pa., manufacturer of industrial control systems. "The plant has five robots operating over three lines. Pan changeovers can be done on the fly."

Previously, bread line workers pulled pans off and put them back on the lines. Today, the robots pick and stack pans. A tracking vehicle unit slides into the shuttle interface conveyor. Another car moves into the racking area where pans are dropped off or picked up. "The system reduces human labor by a tremendous amount," sums Kopicz.

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