To automate or not to automate

To automate or not to automate

Paul Wilkinson discusses the value of automated packing processes compared to manual packing… 

Food is the product type we humans consume the most of, which is why wholesalers distribute vast quantities of fresh goods to stores with frequent deliveries to ensure product quality. As one of the most labour intensive operations within the industry and with a high staff turnover, it is no surprise that many wholesalers are jumping on the automation bandwagon.

Nonetheless due to the high volume and range of products wholesalers’ process on a daily basis, a conservative approach to automation is required to ensure the equipment can not only deal with the bulk handling and variety of pack configurations but improve throughput and efficiency within the fast paced environment.

For many wholesalers, one of the highest margin activities is buying bulk sacks of anything from confectionery products to pulses, flour and breakfast cereal, and repacking them into smaller bags for resale to retail customers. While repacking can be carried out manually, a growing number of wholesalers are opting to automate the process, as this reduces reliance on manual labour, minimises the health and safety risk, resulting in consistent product presentation and increased throughput.

However efficiencies gained through automation may be cancelled out if product is wasted – either due to spillages or contamination – and such wastage is not uncommon. On many systems installed at wholesale operations, bags are filled whilst on a sack clamp, then dropped onto a moving conveyor and transported to a stitcher. During this process, the mouth of the bag is wide open and often unsupported. Not only can this result in sacks falling over and spilling, but anything from a nut or bolt to an insect could fall into the bag and contaminate the product. One such example of a wholesaler repacking bulk products into retail ready packs, is cash & carry operator Bestway, where one tonne bags of rice are repacked into smaller paper sacks. Here a sealing system has been installed incorporating motorized grip arms which move around the bag the moment it is released from the clamp, the arms close on the top of the bag, holding it in its formed state. The bag is then continually clamped shut as it is transported to the sealing device – usually either a stitcher or heat sealer – so at no point can anything miscellaneous drop into the sack. And because the sack is supported throughout the closing process, there’s no risk of it toppling over and the contents spilling out.

While a manufacturer may use one particular type of bag/case design for packing their product, a wholesaler can handle countless types, from paper, plastic, woven polypropylene, hessian and even nets on a daily basis and, consequently, this issue needs to be addressed during automation. Due to the motorized grip arms of the sealer installed within Bestway, who frequently need to run fabric and paper sacks on the line, the system has the ability to handle a variety of different types and presents sacks to the sealer with precision, accurately sealing even the most difficult-to-handle sacks to create consistently premium looking packs. However hessian and jute bags, which are notoriously difficult to handle on an automated system, are often used within wholesalers and while bags are normally placed on the sack clamp automatically, this can’t be done with hessian and jute bags. A solution to this challenge is to incorporate equipment which can be manoeuvred out of the way to allow for human intervention. In the case of Bestway, a portable sack placer was integrated into the line to allow for bag placing to be carried out manually when required.

A diverse range of bag types can cause other complications during the automation process, for instance in the case of paper bags, the tops need to be trimmed and taped before stitching. Again mobility is key and the trimmer and over-taper needs to be built-in to be moved out of the way when packing fabric bags. A sealing system which can both re-form the gussets of paper bags and stretch the tops of fabric bags is also essential. From an assortment of material to the often large span of sizes, the specified system needs to have the capability to deal with bulk solids handling and size changeover with very little downtime. Handling bulky irregular shaped products in sacks is also cause for concern during the palletising process – especially where, in some cases, manual labourers are required to stack pallets with over 40-25kg bags onto a pallet. Hand-stacking is not easy and can result in untidy and unstable pallets as well as heightened health and safety risks. To this end robotic palletising solutions are readily available to provide consistent uniform and neat stacking, plus overcome this arduous labour intensive task.

While there is no doubt that automation and robotics offers both the flexibility to meet the diversity of wholesaler needs and reliability, the cost implications when introducing automation cannot be recovered by increasing prices, and usually requires significant initial investment. A solution to this often costly exercise is the availability of pre-owned robots which have been introduced as a direct response to manufacturers’ demands for more economical automated solutions. These systems incorporate re-conditioned robotic arms which originate primarily from the automotive industry, and are approximately a third of the way through their lifespan. At typically half the cost of a new system, the wholesaler can achieve a far quicker payback with a pre-owned system and still benefit from all the same qualities a new system would offer.

Wholesalers need to meet tight retail timeframes so investing in technology may appear daunting and they may have concerns if problems occur. A good system integrator should offer full remote diagnostics and support so that if problems do arise, following a quick phone call to the support team an engineer can connect to the system in question, view the integrated camera to see what’s happening and start diagnosing the issue immediately without having to wait for an engineer to travel to site.

Remote diagnostics are mainly a reactive service, but new developments from high end providers will also have the ability to alert wholesalers of production statistics or of impending issues upstream or downstream that may lead to loss of production time, this will be of particular importance to those wholesalers who have multiple lines of automated equipment spread over a large area or several sites.

There has never been a better time to look at making your warehouse facility more efficient and profitable by investing in automated systems; choosing the right partner to work with is key and the system should be a bespoke solution which meets the needs of all products – in all shapes and sizes.


Pacepacker Services Ltd are global leaders in the design and manufacture of robotic & conventional automatic packing systems. For further information please visit www.pacepacker-services.co.uk

 

Stephanie Cornwall
Stephanie Cornwall
ADMINISTRATOR
PROFILE