On paper, the concept of automating vertical tray packing sounds relatively straightforward. However, even if the packs are presented uniformly to a robot with a vacuum end-effector, the shortcoming will always be ‘how do you get the last pack into the tray?’
The Shingle Tray Loader (STL) designed by Pacepacker Services solves this problem. The concept, which was showcased at PPMA 2015, presents products in an upright manner and packs fresh form, fill and seal packs into retail crates. Previously a conventional ‘turntable style’ operation employing multiple people to manually load supermarket trays vertically, now reaches 90 packs per minute, ensuring consistent presentation.
Incorporating the very latest FANUC M-710iC/45M robot and Pacepacker’s own-design shingle feed end-effector and tray denester, the STL can vertically pack everything from fresh produce bags (e.g. salad, chopped vegetables, stir fry mixes and noodles), to FMCG ambient goods (coffee, dried pasta, flour) and household cleaning products.
Sharing the benefits of vertically packing, Pacepacker’s business development manager Paul Wilkinson says: “Waste through product spoiling and bags bursting can be a big problem when packs are laid flat and compressed, especially when filled trays are then stacked on top of each other. Another logical benefit of upright stacking is you can fit more product packs into each tray.” For extra flexibility, the system can switch to stack produce trays horizontally.
The bespoke end-effector solves the ‘last product in the tray’ issue. Attached to the robot arm, the stainless steel device, which weighs close to 20kg, moves left and right and adjusts its position in graduated steps to catch each product as it shoots off the end of a conveyor until several packs are stacked one on top of the other. Once the end effector is full, the robot arm tilts into a horizontal position above a waiting full or half-sized crate, releasing the entire collection of products uniformly into the tray … in one go.
From start to finish, the production flow is fully synchronised. A multi-tasking pack diverter, also designed by Pacepacker, counts and indexes packs before they are presented to the end-effector. While the tray denester separates the stacks of crates one by one for filling, pushing them along the conveyor to the shingle packing operation. Up to 20 half trays per line per minute can be processed, which ensures there are no packing bottlenecks.
The entire system footprint measures just 7.5 x 4 metres.
Although the average number of operatives previously performing this vertical packing operation will vary by manufacturers, a 12-month ROI for a larger packing plant is very feasible claims Pacepacker Managing Director Dennis Allison: “What makes the STL so innovative is the sheer volume of product that can be handled by a single robot and end-effector. Because the end-effector never changes and because each aspect has been designed to work in unison, no product changeover should take an operative more than two minutes to complete, boosting productivity for packing plants even further.
“In the last 10 years the UK manufacturing landscape has profoundly altered. External market forces have projected automation into the mainstream, with the need for labour efficiency and productivity driving packing plants towards new and innovative technology like the STL.”