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Lean approach makes for smooth integration of robotic onion packers

A leading packing operation of fresh vegetable produce, has reduced labour requirements by 50% and increased safety for its operators by implementing robotic systems into its facility. With LEAN principles firmly in place, G’s Fresh Vegetables Limited has successfully integrated six ABAR robot packing systems into its Cambridgeshire based facility.

G’s Fresh Vegetables Ltd is based at a dedicated facility at Ramsey, just south of Peterborough. The site stores, grades, packs and dispatches root crops, primarily onions and garlic, for the G’s Growers co-operative.

The Ramsey site is a contract pack operation for G’s Growers and in a seven day operating week grades and packs in excess of 1,000 tonnes of onions.

In 2006 a strategic review of its expanding production facility concluded that individual processes, that had been developed and added over the years, needed integration into the plant as a whole. John Griffin, Operations Manager for G’s Ramsey plant, explains, "Back in 2006 it was decided that investment in capital equipment shouldn’t take place until our production lines were straightened out and optimised. We did invest in people however through implementation of LEAN principles and by building up our engineering capability.

"Between 2006 and 2009 we really got into good shape with increased efficiency, more capacity, a reduction in labour and improved product quality. Adopting the principles of LEAN and understanding the importance of Employee engagement the site was involving everyone and breaking down barriers while increasing individual skill sets."

Investment in robot automation began with phase 1 in 2009 with an end of line packing system for loose onions. Supplied by food sector automation specialist ABAR Limited the system comprises a de-stacker to place crates onto a conveyor, automated placement of a liner to the crate, conveyors to transport crates to the weigh heads and after re converging the crates are check-weighed then baling arms closed and held in a pick-up area for collection by a FANUC Robotics.

R-2000iB. Crates are collected and stacked into piles of three before being palletised. Complete pallets are then strapped and transported by conveyor to a fork truck collection point.

John Griffin explains, "This first system was obviously important for us to get right so considerable time was spent evaluating suppliers and equipment. In addition we needed to gain the confidence of our growers who invest in our business to continually improve for future growth.

"ABAR came out ahead for us – they have so much experience; over ten years handling and moving fresh produce, in particular potatoes which aren’t unlike onions when it comes to automation. Understanding the process and its limitations is essential to develop software to the required level. Throughout the evaluation process we involved our operators even to the extent of sending them to ABAR’s Amsterdam facility for the commissioning process."

G’s takes pride in having its own highly capable Engineering Team – this comprises six engineers including one maintenance engineer. They worked with the ABAR Team to develop and install the system which further supported its integration at the Ramsey facility.

Phase 2 was installed in March 2010 and packs bags of onions into crates and palletises them. Comprising three ABAR LR-80B Pick and Place robot cells and two FANUC Robotics M-710iC robots, bags of onions enter the LR-80B robot cell where they are picked and placed into a crate which, when full, moves to a quality check area. Here an operator checks the packs are flat in the crate and closes the bale arms before sending the crate off to the FANUC Robotics M-710iC robot for palletising.

G’s has aimed to keep its automation as un-complex as possible. Involving an operator in the automation process provides for a quality check and also allows tasks such as applying crate cards and checking bale arms are closed to be carried out. Operator stations also lift the crate up to a comfortable operator working height and a green ‘pass’ button is pushed when the check is complete.

Further helping the systems to achieve expectations has been the implementation of OEE (Overall Equipment Efficiency) as a key measure of LEAN. Data is collected from key parts of the production operation as a measure and cause of downtime – this requires operator/engineering input before restart and the masses of data produced help to identify where improvements can be made.

G’s are now confidently entering the development stage of phase three and four of robotics and have benefitted from the many lessons of implementing the first two phases. John Griffin concludes, "I’m very proud of what everyone has achieved here at G’s Ramsey we genuinely have a very efficient operation supported by robotic automation with capacity to meet growth. Implementing LEAN and embracing employee engagement has been essential and, by its very nature, this is understood by the entire workforce – a great team that has played an important part in its success."

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