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The Big Blu: Robot ramps up marine mineral production

Investing in a Blu-Robot from Pacepacker Services has enabled Microferm, a UK producer of marine source minerals, to increase the efficiency of its packing and palletising operation by 25%.

Part of the Marigot Group, Microferm Ltd is a UK based provider of environmentally-friendly solutions that harness natural resources. At its food grade processing facility in Worcestershire, refined calcium, magnesium and trace-minerals are produced from calcified seaweed. The seaweed is carefully harvested under licence from the sea bed off the shores of North West Iceland and then shipped to Microferm’s UK BRC (British Retail Consortium) certified factory for processing into Aquamin. This natural mineral complex is used as a food and supplement fortification, predominantly throughout Asia.

Historically, the powdered mineral complex was packed into 25kg boxes, which were then manually palletised ready for shipping to export markets.

However, with demand for its products growing, Microferm was keen to make its operation more efficient. To start with, it calculated that switching to 25kg sacks would enable 50 bags – rather than 40 boxes – to be stacked onto each pallet. Microferm also identified that one operative working between the packing and palletising line was an accident waiting to happen. Automating the process would not only increase efficiency and boost output, but also alleviate the health and safety risk factor of manual pallet stacking.

Last autumn John Smith, managing director of Microferm, visited the PPMA exhibition, and Pacepacker Services was one of the exhibitors on his ‘to see’ list. John said: “Speaking to others who had invested in Pacepacker Blu-Robots really convinced me that was the way to go. Everyone expressed satisfaction in the performance and reliability of the solution.”

“On the face of it, a new robot didn’t appear to cost much more, but when we factored in all the extras, the Blu-Robot came out very favourably,” claims John.

Maintaining high global quality standards
Given the dusty nature of the product and the long journey to its final destination, gentle handling and precise placement were two very important factors.

“All of the minerals produced in this factory are exported, mainly to the USA and Asia, so we wanted a solution that would guarantee a secure stack and would handle the sacks gently to avoid any tearing or damage,” explained John.

The Blu-Robot supplied to Microferm features a vacuum plunger that comes down to flatten the bags after they are palletised to produce a flat, consistent presentation and to ensure a neat and stable stack. Pacepacker also painted the Blu-Robot white for aesthetic purposes – so that the production facility would look clean.

The Blu-Robot took two days to install and commission, and was ready for duty by Christmas Eve 2014.
It’s early days, but so far Microferm is delighted with the difference the Blu-Robot has made to its operation.

“We’ve increased our production by 25% and, as the robot isn’t anywhere near flat out, there’s plenty of scope to ramp up production further when we need to. The Blu-Robot is performing as per our expectations and we’re impressed with its reliability and with the overall service we’ve received from Pacepacker,” comments John.

Microferm also liked the fact that Pacepacker offered a complete package, including end-of-arm tooling, controls and a 12-month warranty with service and spares back-up, as well as guarding, conveying equipment and installation.

Microferm is now looking at moving over to pinch bottom sacks, as a means of improving bag presentation and seal integrity. The company has subsequently purchased two Pacepacker Pinch Bottom Heat Sealers, which works by folding and sealing stepped end paper sacks via hot air jets that reactivate pre-applied hot melt adhesive. The sack is fed into the feeder that then automatically creases the top, heats it and folds it over and finally presses it to a tight seal.

“As all our products are exported, they are subjected to a lot of handling. Pinch bottom heat sealing improves seal quality, ensuring the sacks can withstand all that handling, and it gives a more attractive presentation,” explained John.

Pacepacker launched its first Blu-Robot palletising system in 2011, providing SME manufacturers and seasonal packers with an economical alternative to first-user systems. The re-conditioned robots, originating primarily from the automotive industry, are typically half the cost of a new system, enabling the user to achieve a far quicker payback.

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