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Automation and Manufacturing Innovations for the Food Industry

April 25, 2018
Recent case studies in the food industry highlight how new innovations can improve the automation, manufacturing, and packaging processes.

Innovations in the automation industry impact other industry processes. This includes the food industry, which needs the same technology innovations that have improved the folding, sealing, taping, boxing, and picking and placing operations. The following are two case studies on how robotics and new materials can improved the food packaging process.

Saving Space and Costs Through Robotics

The Finland-based Orfer Oy company recently opened its North American office in Toronto. Orfer Oy manufactures robotic material-handling systems for a range of industries. For a new design of a fully automated packing machine targeted to the food and packaging industries, Orfer needed a robot that offered fast and accurate handling and that could easily integrate with a vision system to track and pick parts from a moving conveyor.

Orfer’s newest system is the ORFER BoxCellPlus, which expands on the popular BoxCell packing cell with the ability to open flattened boxes, fold the flaps, and seal the bottom with tape and then fill the box with products. Orfer’s existing BoxCell system uses a Toshiba Machine TH650A SCARA robot from TM Robotics to automate the process that quickly packs products into plastic or cardboard boxes. For the design of the BoxCellPlus, TM Robotics helped Orfer define the robot specification based on the reach, payload, and cycle time requirements for food and packaging applications.

Assessing the Requirements

“Packing is a classic pick-and-place application,” explained TM Robotics CEO Nigel Smith. “It doesn’t require the dexterity of a six-axis robot and needs a greater working envelope than a spider-style robot offers.” This is why the new BoxCellPlus uses a high-speed Toshiba Machine TH650A high-speed SCARA robot.

SCARA robots can reach as far as 1.2 meters. The TH650A 650-millimeter reach is close to equivalent to the length of the human arm. Since automated process were designed with human workers in mind, the 650-millimeter reach is ideal for packing and assembly applications. SCARA robots can handle payloads of 10 to 20 kilograms. 10 kilograms is ideal for food packaging. This allows a wide variety of products to be picked while supporting a variety of tool configurations. A single gripper for multiple products requires a number of components, all of which need to be considered when looking at the robot’s final payload. The 10-kilogram payload offers engineers flexibility to design their end-of-arm tooling.

Flexibility is Key

Orfer chose to ceiling-mount the SCARA robot so it could be placed above the conveyor rather than using the standard floor mounting to the side. This allowed the comapny to minimize the overall size of the BoxCellPlus while maximizing the robot’s ability to access products coming down the moving conveyor and place them into the box. The smaller robot also helped make the system more cost-effective overall.

The SCARA robot’s ability to place parts accurately within 0.01 millimeters was enhanced with an extended Z shaft of 400 millimeters that enables parts to be placed deeper into the box. This accuracy and depth helps prevent product damage during packing, and provides consistent, high-quality output for Orfer customers.

Due to its modular structure and adjustable control system, the BoxCellPlus can be easily integrated into factory or warehouse management systems. As part of an automated packing system, the BoxCellPlus can be fed from conveyors from a weight-checker, labelling machine, or a vacuum packer. The robot also interfaces with leading vision systems, which can be used for inspection and to send coordinate data to the robot to pick parts from a moving conveyor.

Smaller Size, Better Output

Orfer is able to pass along the advantages of the Toshiba Machine robot in its new BoxCellPlus system, including faster, more accurate processing, smaller size, and lower cost.

“Our customers could use multiple machines to erect boxes and fill them, which could take up as much as 50% more space on the production floor,” said Mäkelä. “With the BoxCellPlus, both of those functions happen in a smaller space and at as much as 15 to 25% lower cost than using multiple machines.”

“In comparison to a six-axis robot with a cycle time of five seconds, the Toshiba Machine SCARA robot’s cycle time is approximately two seconds, which dramatically improved capacity,” says Smith. “And it costs about 40% less than a spider robot.”

Alternative Materials for Environmentally Sustainable Solutions

While materials like plastic have revolutionized how we package and store food products, they are doing significant damage to our environment. Leading packaging manufacturer Advanta has been investigating concerns about food packaging and the benefits of alternative packaging materials. 

According to the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), food packaging waste accounts for over 5.1million tonnes of the total waste—that’s just from the UK’s food and drink supply chain, let alone the rest of the world. But what’s the alternative to plastic?

Aluminium packaging first appeared on the market in 1948 and saw a period of growth in popularity throughout the 1950s and ’60s, when TV dinners began to revolutionize the food market. According to the Aluminium Federation, most of the aluminium used in packaging is in the form of rolled products, which are used for flexible packaging like fine foils, or as rigid packaging like drinks cans and trays.

The strength, flexibility and ability to withstand extreme heat and cold are some of the key benefits for choosing aluminium over other packaging options.

Aluminium trays, for instance, can be moulded in to nearly any shape or size. This creates opportunities to develop visually appealing packaging that is capable of supporting the storage and cooking of even awkward or unusually shaped. It also means that packaging can be adapted to meet the needs of any manufacturing process equipment, like conveyors or robotic arms.

Aluminium can resist temperatures of up to 400°C and be frozen at temperatures as low as minus 40°C. Throughout these extremes, the rigidity of the structure is not compromised, making it an ideal material for many products.

First-Class Fiber

Another alternative that can produce a high-end look, while being environmentally conscious, is fiber pulp packaging. It is manufactured using 100% pre-consumed materials like cardboard, and is often used for packaging premium food products.

Fiber pulp packaging is extremely popular in Nordic markets where environmental and green cultures are well developed. However, as more customers, particularly across the rest of Europe, adopt healthy, environmentally conscious lifestyles, many are willing to pay premium prices for sustainable packaging options.

Fiber pulp is also ideal for the ready meal or the ready-to-cook market, as the material is cool to touch when taken out of the oven or microwave. It can also be formed into trays that have sealed compartments, meaning no cross-contamination between meal components.

Time for Change

Now is the time to provide consumers with sustainable, environmentally friendly packaging choices. With reports from GLJ Recycling stating that every average household produces a ton of waste every year, a figure that is increasing by 3% year-on-year, it means that in 25 years, the amount of waste produced will have doubled.

While consumers will undoubtedly start to look for eco-friendly packaging alternatives in the supermarket, the problem of plastic waste will continue if manufacturers keep using it to package their products.

Considering that some waste has limited use, and ultimately will end up in landfill for hundreds of years or make its way into our oceans, manufacturers must take ownership of sourcing recyclable packaging materials—and there are plenty available.

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