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Baker’s first robot boosts oven capacity by 80 percent

A thriving Yorkshire bakery has invested in its first robot system loading and unloading baked products to an oven. Fosters Bakery has increased capacity of a reel oven by 80% and is saving 50% energy costs in the process.

Based in Barnsley, Foster’s Bakery has a ‘can do’ attitude when it comes to production processes in its factory. A trip round a fully automated bakery in Holland several years ago illustrated to Directors John Foster and Michael Taylor just what could be done to enhance manufacturing capability.

Identifying an oven loading application as a starting point Fosters worked with a local engineering company to integrate a FANUC Robotics M-710iA articulated robot. Michael Taylor, Operations Director, explains, "The nature of reel ovens is that the shelves continually move making it impossible for a single operator to unload a full tray of baked products and replace the same shelf with dough. In practice many shelves are left to rotate without anything loaded onto them while the operator aims to keep them filled."

This first attempt at automating the process didn’t go too well for Fosters with the robot, wrongly, being perceived to be the issue. At this early stage the services of The Centre for Food Robotics and Automation (CENFRA) were called upon to analyse the situation and to see what could be done.

"The robot was certainly not at fault and it was clear that several variables in the process, trays, positioning and tray trolleys, hadn’t been accounted for sufficiently," continued Michael, "In fact the biggest lesson learned here was to always ensure that the systems engineering company is fully proficient with food sector robotics and automation."

To get the installation back on track, Fosters called on FANUC Robotics UK Ltd who were able to project manage the system to completion. The system comprises a FANUC Robotics M-710iA robot which has a specially engineered gripper with a capacity to handle two trays positioned one above the other. The gripper design allows loaded trays to be collected from shelves or deposited to shelves when receiving a signal from the robot control system.

The M-710ia Robot aligns the gripper with a full tray of dough products and, after gripping the end of the tray, retracts it from the trolley into the gripper framework. The robot then moves the gripper to the reel oven which moves trays on a continually operating vertical loop. The robot waits at the loading area until a sensor gives a signal to indicate a tray is aligned, and while simultaneously moving at a pre-programmed speed, clamps and withdraws a tray of baked products and then pushes a tray of dough onto the oven shelf – the transfer process at each location taking just 2 seconds.

The speed of the process means that shelves are now always full of dough so apart from a measured increase in capacity of 80% there is also a significant improvement in energy utilisation – estimated at an energy saving of 50% for the process.

Fosters claim this is the first time this application has been automated using a robot and credit it to ‘out of the box’ thinking. "It takes time and patience to get these systems right but the rewards are very high. The robot started to earn money for the business before it was even operating," explained Michael, "when visiting the bakery our customers, who include Europe’s leading Coffee Shop businesses, were left in no doubt that Fosters is committed to investment in the business and its product."

On a lighter note Michael explained the effect of the robot on the workforce as very positive. He explained that when the robot was first installed the operators fetched him to see it, amazed at the speed of operation. "The effect on me was surreal at this stage as I’d seen the operation reduced from two operators loading, to one robot loading and 13 operators watching! This was early days though and we’re already seeing significant returns on the investment," concluded Michael.

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