Robots flexibility proves perfect for potato packing

Four robots used for packaging at Greenvale, one of the UK’s largest supplier of fresh potatoes, have proved to be highly flexible over their 10 years of ­operation. Undergoing three major system upgrades during this time, to meet customer packaging and volume demands, the four Fanuc Robotics robots are continuing to provide a strong return on investment

The robot systems, two each at Greenvale’s Cambridgeshire and Berwickshire sites, were designed and supplied by food automation specialist Abar Automation. A strategic partner of Fanuc Robotics, Abar Automation has supported the systems over their lifetime and managed the re-engineering on each occasion as required.

Each Abar DL-16 Container Loading Cell is the same and currently picking and placing pre-pack 2.5kg and 5kg bags of potatoes into merchandisable units (MUs) at 60 bags per minute. Originally the systems had been designed to handle 30 bags per minute from a twisted tape bagging machine but improved packaging and capacity demands have seen this increase.

Rob Phillips, operations manager, Greenvale, explains, “Since the robots were initially installed the systems have been moved and upgraded at least three times to accommodate different packaging formats. If we’d had a pick-and-place machine on a conveyor system the cost of re-engineering, where possible, would have been significantly higher.

“We do use collation systems here at Greenvale but one of the important considerations with the initial justification was the flexibility of robots. If the packaging format changes, or the retailer’s requirement changes we don’t have to scrap the whole system.”

Greenvale’s Cambridgeshire site has a production capacity of 2,400 tons per week – through implementing lean practices and investment this capacity is equivalent to what three plants would be operating at 10 years ago. Flexibility remains a core importance in justification of plant but equally important is the amount of space taken up, or available, relative to an increase in production.

“The Abar robot cells do have a very small footprint and this is an important criteria when deciding on automation – space is limited and costly and the robots have proved successful in achieving this objective. Looking to future systems we are aware of next generation case packing but we expect a small footprint and high speeds,” continues Rob.

On operation and maintenance of automation equipment at Greenvale, Rob Phillips explains that he has no issues here, “The robots just don’t present a problem. I believe there is even a case for stating that sometimes you can over service equipment with negative results. The Fanuc robots have been completely reliable with one service a year.

“Our systems work because they are well engineered. I believe that 90 per cent of success lies in programming and designing the handling/pick-up solution. Abar Automation developed new gripper and input conveyor solutions for us each time we had an upgrade and I believe this is what makes the systems work so well.”

Operating two shifts a day throughout the year means system failure is not an option for Greenvale. Phillips quotes a service uptime of 99.98 per cent and working close to a target of 99.99 per cent. His emphasis to maintain these levels is to start off using well proven equipment and to ensure integration is competently undertaken.

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