Can pick and pack improve output and still ensuring high levels of quality in food? Business Development Manager at Pacepacker Services, PAUL WILKINSON, responds with a resounding ‘yes’…
Pick-and-place applications comprise both primary handling – putting individual pieces of product into a tray or carton – and case packing. In recent years both areas have been a fertile ground for development. Efficiency is high on every food manufacturer’s agenda, and supermarkets, particularly the bigger stores, are feeling the shift towards European discounted food retailers. To help tackle this, many are pledging to lower food prices, which means driving down manufacturing costs. Automation plays a huge role in increasing everyone’s competitive edge, and is certainly fundamental for Pacepacker’s customers, particularly those manufacturing large volumes of own-branded food.
A critical element of the automation process is the end-of-line pick-and-place and secondary packing. Some of the greatest innovations are taking place in this arena, driven by labour-efficiency and productivity. Developments in pick-and-place end-of-arm tooling is especially prevalent, providing gentle yet practical handling solutions to increase output and reduce product damage and waste. All these steps help to maintain product quality and avoiding hefty supermarket penalties.
MEANS TO AN END
The flexibility of pick and place today enables manufacturers to opt for multi-use end-effectors which can perform multiple tasks, resulting in fewer tool changeovers. An example of this is the new Shingle Tray Loader (STL) unveiled at PPMA 2015, which loads 90 packs a minute into crates. Solving the longstanding challenge of packing fresh form, fill and seal packs vertically into retail trays, one end-effector can handle everything from fresh salad, noodle and vegetable packs, to coffee, dried pasta, flour and household cleaning products. Many manufacturers now realise that the more tasks their equipment can do, the quicker their return on investment.
Other design advances have been in vacuum handling. Generally speaking you can pick and place almost anything by vacuum providing you get the science right and calculate the holding force and suction pad diameter correctly. There are now hundreds of options for end-effectors to accommodate virtually any product applications. Issues like post-suction marking on film topped packs or grippers penetrating fruits in netted bags have also been solved by new innovations.
MIX IT UP
An emerging trend in pick and place is to generate mixed product trays. This is a quickly expanding market driven by tighter retail shelf space and more product variations. As well as reducing handling costs, it helps retailers to manage their stock holding better. For perishable goods, this is especially beneficial for cutting waste by reducing the volume of stock going out of date. To illustrate the demand, orders for mixed trays quadrupled within a year for one dip that after changing from swapping products manually to automating the process.
AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE
Accuracy, speed and repeatability are among the many benefits of automating pick and pack lines. The shortage and the overhead costs of employing skilled labour continue to be a real challenge for the UK food industry. Manufacturing of the future will become faster and we will need to be more responsive to the changing global markets if we’re to grow our export business. Automating all production processes will be critical to capturing these opportunities and maintaining food quality.
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