Highly commended at the 2017 PPMA Group Industry Awards for robotic innovation, an automated turnkey installation from end-of-line automation specialist Brillopak has provided McVities with a flexible, small footprint, multi-line palletising solution that has paid for itself within 15 months through reduced labour costs.
The seven Brillopak C2 KT400 robotic palletisers, located on a mezzanine floor, have been running successfully for over 18 months at Pladis McVities’ distribution centre in Ashby de la Zouch. Processing in excess of 60 SKUs from seven different packing lines without the need for any tool changeovers, the advanced robotic solution has transformed a labour intensive bottleneck into a seamless and efficient ten-case-per-minute palletising operation.
With annual revenue of US$5.2bn and 26,000 employees worldwide, Pladis Group is an international conglomerate of biscuit and confectionery brands, including names like United Biscuits, McVities, Ülker and Godiva. In March 2015, the company invited several equipment suppliers to propose an automated palletising solution for its distribution hub at Ashby de la Zouche. The site was manually palletising boxes of McVities products on seven different lines – a labour-intensive process that was causing congestion in the packing area.
Automating this process was a major challenge – not least because the lines are packing in excess of 60 SKUs into a number of different box sizes, with several product changeovers every day. This necessitated a flexible palletising solution that could switch easily between multiple case sizes and accommodate new product types. At the same time, the system had to be easy for both agency and in-house staff to operate and extremely compact to fit into a very small area on a mezzanine floor.
Optimising floor space
Brillopak investigated a number of layout options to fit within the mezzanine layout, quickly eliminating articulated robots due to weight and size. Palletising conveyors were also rejected because there was a pathway through the centre of the mezzanine floor that could not be obstructed. In the end, by modifying its C2 KT400 robotic palletiser, Brillopak arrived at a solution that met all of these criteria and impressed McVities with its compact footprint and performance capabilities.
“I felt that Brillopak listened to us and took the time to understand our requirements. The Brillopak solution met our needs in terms of layout, performance and price. The small footprint of the palletiser combined with the flexibility to handle our 50 plus SKUs with no tooling changeover also had a big impact on our decision,” says Pladis Group’s Mike Hellier.
The solution comprised four compact C2 KT400 single cell palletisers for the manual pack stations, a further two KT400 palletisers for each flow wrapper and a KT800 dual cell palletiser for the high speed cartoner. Each system used the latest Omron NJ Series control system incorporating motion control, communications and a separate safety circuit.
But this was no standard, ‘off the peg’ solution; Brillopak’s engineers modified the KT400 palletiser to minimise its footprint and weight, optimised the Omron motion control and engineered a new servo driven robot head with adjustable torque to handle varying case dimensions without the need for a tool changeover.
David Jahn, Brillopak director explains: “We optimised the Omron motion control to achieve fluid movements across all products. This eliminates the issue of damage to cases and their contents as a result of sudden speed changes at the start and end of a cycle.”
He continues: “We designed a new servo driven robot head that can be programmed and manually adjusted for multiple case dimensions. Incorporating a variable control for the torque, this new head can palletise over 60 different case types.”
With insufficient space for accumulation on the line with the high-speed cartoner, Brillopak also performed some modifications to the KT800 dual cell palletiser to accommodate the new servo driven head. This machine palletises from side to side with an internal safety gate rising to allow pallet removal without the need to stop the robot.
Prior to the installation, McVities personnel inspected the machines. During this visit, Mike Hellier was “struck by the pride the people had in their machines”.
“We could see the quality of design and build. The ease of use for operators on a hectic schedule was also apparent,” he says.
Ease of use
Simple operation is a particularly important criteria for robotics, whose acceptance has historically been hampered by perceptions that the technology is difficult to use. Brillopak went to great lengths to ensure that personnel at all levels could easily use the robots. For example, product set-up simply involves keying in the SKU number or selecting from a drop down list – the rest is set up automatically.
Changing between products is equally straightforward – at the touch of a button, an operator can effect a product changeover without any tooling changeover, enabling consistent throughput of ten cases per minute on each line. This user-friendly design, underpinned by thorough operator training during commissioning, has resulted in staff feeling confident and happy operating the palletisers.
“I found that Brillopak was really focused on doing the job professionally. They remained on site to make sure all of our people understood the systems before they left,” says Mike.
Payback target smashed
The seven robot cells have been successfully running for over 18 months, having already paid for themselves within 15 months through reduced labour costs and increased efficiency. Pladis reports that the systems have “exceeded expectations in terms of reliability and consistency of performance” and have allowed it to achieve its objective of labour reduction and increased efficiency in a very small space.
And the beauty of this solution is that it has been proofed for the future, with the ability to adapt to the seasonal and ranging changes that are a feature of McVities’ business. Pallet layer patterns can be added in-house following training from Brillopak, ensuring that when new products or case sizes come on-line, whether in six weeks’ or six years’ time, the system can easily handle them.