Using Robots to Solve End-of-Line Issues in the Food Industry
Food manufacturers face a number of challenges
in their end-of-line packaging operations. In a manual process, they must
deal with ergonomic issues, labor availability, and the uncertainty of increasing
costs associated with recent and potential future legislation. In an automated
process, accommodating rapid-fire package changes driven by sustainability
initiatives and shelf impact, as well understanding and improving key performance
measures such as Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), are key. And in any
process, food safety is an overriding concern on the minds of processors,
as the consequences of foodborne illness and/or massive product recalls have
affected a wide range of food categories.
Current Robotic Trends in Packaging
Industrial robots have emerged as a valuable end-of-line tool to help
address these challenges for food manufacturers, as the performance and user-friendliness
of the technology has increased while costs have decreased. Growth in vision-assisted
robotic applications is especially notable, as vision enables a robot to emulate
the flexibility of human hand-eye coordination and perform a number of in-process
product inspections for quality assurance. A number of statistics point to
increased adoption of robotics in the industry: The International Federation
of Robotics (IFR) Statistics Department, which provides information on world-wide
trends in robotics, reports optimistically about robotics industry growth
in the coming years. According to the Robotics and Automation Society, whose
goal is to ”advance innovation, education, and fundamental and applied
research in Robotics and Automation, ” (1) says in a report that ”Nearly every
major user industry increased its purchases in the opening quarter of 2010.
Especially strong gains were seen in robot sales to the semiconductor/electronics/photonics
industries as well as food & consumer goods.” In addition, “Material
handling remains the largest application area for new robot orders, accounting
for some 60% of the units sold in North America in the January through March
Robotics in the packaging industry is also shown to be on the rise in
a survey done by PMMI in 2008 (3).
Growth of Robotics in Packaging (3)
Usage Trends for Robotics in Packaging (3)
Many food companies and packaging machinery manufacturers have successfully
applied robots in a wide variety of processes in the dairy, meat, baking,
confection, frozen, snack, beverage, and even produce industries. Some are
unique new applications exploiting the flexibility of robots, but more typically
a robot is used to complement a traditional packaging machine as an infeed
loader or outfeed unloader:
Placing products into the infeed buckets of side-loading cartoners
Placing products directly into top-loading cartons
Loading the infeed of a flow-wrapper
Filling the product pockets in a form, fill and seal (FFS)
Arranging products in blister and thermoforming machines
Creating product arrays or stacks at the infeed to a bagging
Placing products directly into clamshell packaging
Loading and unloading a retort process
Descrambling bottles from bulk for the infeed of filling,
capping, and/or labeling machines
Topload and sideload casepacking of bags, pouches, tubes,
bottles, bundles, cartons, etc.
Packing products into reusable or single-use trays
Unloading various types of baked goods from pans
Unloading and casepacking single-serve portion packages
from filling machines
Palletizing and depalletizing beverages, cases, bags,
pails, totes, bulk containers, cans, bundles, etc.
These robotic applications have enabled manufacturers in the food industry
to accommodate new lightweight sustainable package designs, improve OEE, reduce
changeover time, eliminate change parts, reduce operating costs, and improve
food safety and quality.
(1) IEEE Robotics and Automation Society, (accessed
(2) IEEE RAS, Munich, 09 June 2010 (Accessed
(3) PMMI, Robotics: Usage and Trends in Packaging
Applications. (Accessed 2010–08–31). http://www.pmmi.org/files/pib/Robotics.pdf.
Benefits of End-of-Line Robots in Packaging
End-of-line palletizing robots can be used with multi-case grippers,
for example, to achieve high throughput rates. After the cases are collated
on the infeed conveyor, the robot can transfer the cases, using a vacuum-actuated
gripper, to the pallet. Products that can be palletized can include: corrugated
cases bags and pouches, bottles and cans, totes and open cases, drums, pails
and rolls, bundles and stacks, pallets and slip sheets. The precise placement
of items such as these on the pallet ensures that the corners and edges of
the cases are aligned for maximum stacking strength and minimal product damage
in shipment. Optimally, edges should be stacked on edges, and corners should
be stacked on corners and that is one of those areas where a robotic system,
being done manually today, can definitely help with quality and reduced product
damage in shipping.
A highly efficient layout, with the conveyor locations and elevations
carefully optimized, enables peak production rates of more than 60 cases per
minute. Note below that the gripper is servo-actuated to vary selectively
the spacing of the cases from the infeed conveyor to form the stacking pattern
on the pallet.
Palletizing Multi-Case Gripper
The robot can also simultaneously run two different products of distinctly
different sizes with uniquely different palletizing patterns. This production
flexibility helps maximize productivity by minimizing changeover time.
Alternating Products with the Same Robot
In some cases, many products need to be run in lower volumes. To solve
this problem you might have a single infeed with a variety of product types,
eight different ones for example, flowing into the cell and the bar code is
read at the entry point into the cell and the robots are sorting selectively
to one of the eight different pallets. In addition the robot handles the
bottom slip-sheet that is put under each load in order to bring a lot of functionality
out of one machine.
Robots can also be used efficiently in places where humans don't want
to be — a freezer for example. Deep-freeze environments present a special
challenge from a personnel standpoint. Often a single operation requires
multiple associates because their exposure time to the extreme cold must be
limited. Robots can be adapted for these specialty environments such as freezers.
A heated suit can be used to protect the robot and the teach pendant from
the severe temperatures. An experienced integrator can select the appropriate
system peripherals such as conveyors and gripper components to deal with the
Robots in Traditionally Hazardous Low Temperature Environments
Benefits of Flexible Robotic Automation in End-of-Line Food Production
|Traditional End-of-Line Methods
||End-of-Line Methods Utilizing Robots
|Manual Pick, Place, and Palletizing
||Robots can pick primary and secondary product, place into cartoners,
and palletize product efficiently and effectively
|Unsafe process or a process that is at a significant risk for repetitive
||Robots are precise, clean, and repetitive and can run without failure
for several cycles
|Hard automation is inflexible
||Sudden product or packaging changes are handled with ease
||Are hygienic and sterilized
|Risk product damage during packaging
||Highly sophisticated sensors monitor pressure, and grippers that have
been developed specifically for food processing can eliminate product or package
|Tedious, repetitive, and heavy-handling tasks
||Consistent movements and high payload capacity perform tasks with ease
|Imprecise equipment handling can damage equipment
||Precise, consistent handling can greatly increase the service life
of the equipment.
||Reliable with Mean Time Between Failure rates > 90,000 hours
|Large single-task equipment requirements
||Small workcell footprints with robots that can handle multiple operations
End-of-Line Automation process problems can be solved using robots for
many food applications including packaging items such as:
iRVision® in the Food Industry
FANUC America uses iRVision®
for part location. iRVision® is Integrated
Robot Vision which is the integration of a camera interface built into the
robot controller. One or more cameras can be attached to the robot, or they
can be in a remote location. In traditional processes, if you want the robot
to manipulate every workpiece in the same way, you need to place every workpiece
at exactly the same position. iRVision®
is a visual sensor system designed to eliminate such restrictions. iRVision® measures the position of each workpiece
by using cameras, and it adjusts the robot motion so that the robot can manipulate
the workpiece in the same way as programmed even if the position of the workpiece
is different from the workpiece position set when the robot program was taught.
All of the application-specific tools developed to simplify the use of the
camera as a guidance, identification, or inspection tool are integrated with
Can handle multiple parts at one time.
Reduces floor space.
Makes part changeovers a breeze.
Can identify parts in multiple orientations.
Can identify parts in 2D or 3D.
Can error proof the parts as they enter assembly, as well
as the assembly itself.
Can increase throughput.
Reduces or eliminates fixturing costs.
Several examples below show how robots have been integrated effectively
into end-of-line food packaging and food-related operations in order to improve
the production process, and save money.
Using a Robot to Handle Food-Related Packing Materials
In some high-speed applications a robot can be used to handle the packaging
materials themselves. The robot accepts cases of flat cartons as shown below.
The robot then loads the infeed magazine of the cartoning machine in
order to ensure uninterrupted operation of the cartoning process.
Can and Glass Jar Palletizing
With each cycle in a full layer depalletizing application, a 4-axis
M-410iB robot acquires a full layer of
cans with a tier sheet on top. After the layer of cans is separated from
the magnetic tooling, a vacuum system retains the tier sheet until it’s
deposited on an outgoing stack for reuse.
When the pallet is completely empty, the robot also transfers the empty
pallet to an outgoing stack. Then a new load can be introduced into the system.
In a glass palletizing system, a wide variety of bottle sizes is accepted.
It also handles bottles in bulk as well as corrugated shippers. The R-2000iB layer-forming robot performs automatic tool change
to switch between bulk and shippers, while the M-410iB
layer-palletizing robot requires no changeover. The M-410iB
palletizes the product, handles layer separator boards and the top frame on
each pallet load. The same system can be used for plastic bottles as well.
Perfect loads that minimize product damage are produced by precise alignment
of each successive layer on the previous layer.
Plastic Container Palletizing
Casepacking plastic containers is a common robotic application. A variety
of robots, gripper types, and system configurations can be applied to provide
high speed, production flexibility, and quick changeover. Often a 6-axis
robot is used so that the case can be tipped during packing, to take advantage
of gravity to help stabilize previously-packed layers of product.
Plastic Container Casepacking
Picking, Packing and Palletizing Food and Drink Items
Palletizing Bottled Water
Non-carbonated beverages in the bottles are extremely fragile and can
be damaged by conventional palletizing equipment. By handling the products
more gently, the robotic system eliminates product damage and enables the
customer to achieve their sustainability goals for their products. The robotic
system also changes over immediately, delivering high OEE.
Palletizing Bottled Water
Palletizing Bottled Water
Packing Warehouse Club Drinks
This system applies molded plastic handles for large beverage containers.
Applying Handles to Drinks
The robots easily accommodate misalignment of the incoming cases, using
offsets from an upstream iRVision camera.
Applying Handles to Drinks on Incoming Cases
PickPRO was used to prove out the process before any hardware was built.
Using PickPro to Set Up the System
The robotic system in this paper packaging application greatly simplifies
the packaging operation traditionally performed by expensive and expansive
Consolidating and combining multiple functions into the robotic stations
created an efficient and less expensive system.
Packaging Paper Goods Efficiently with Two Robots
This high-speed application for cartoning bars uses the robot not only
to pack the cartons, but also to act as the in-process transfer mechanism
from the carton erector to the outfeed conveyor. Note the gripper motion
to change the product spacing while transferring between the bar wrapper outfeed
and the cartons.
A 4-axis M-420iA robot uses a high
throughput vacuum gripper with adjustable pitch to pack bars and transfers
cartons to a pallet.
Packing Flour into Corrugated Boxes
In the following example, flour is stacked in corrugated shipping gaylords, or corrugated fiberboard bulk boxes, using
a 4–axis M-420iA robot with a vacuum
gripper in a compact, high-speed system.
Flour bags are then collated and stacked in the boxes in a 1 infeed,
2 pallet system. This system solves the notoriously common ergonomics issue
of reaching into deep, high-walled containers found in many manufacturing
Collating Flour Bags into Boxes
Casepacking Cookies and Crackers
The flexible casepacking system accommodates a variety of products including
products in cartons, sleeves, open-top case, etc. Multiple processes can
be performed in one workcell by the same robot maximizing throughput and minimizing
floor space. The center robot performs multiple functions such as delivering
empty cases to the casepacking robots, handling full cases of various types,
and also handling and applying adhesive to the lid of the open-top case.
Casepacking Cookies and Crackers
In this workcell, a 6–axis M-16iB
robot and a 4–axis M-420iA robot
By using vision , the robots in these next few examples emulate hand-eye
coordination to deliver the production flexibility to process multiple product
types, while changeover, if required at all, is limited to the robot grippers.
In this system, the same robots and identical infeed conveyor accommodate
small rounds, large rounds and breadsticks. Note the robots casepack the
product as well as the layer-separator sheets with each cycle.
Sophisticated software coordinates the activities of the 8 robots to
process the incoming product flow and differing product sizes. This advanced
function is called “load balancing.” Product changeover is accomplished
with ease as the robot quickly changes from picking up six frozen dough items
Rice waffles are transferred at high speed to downstackers which then
feed baggers for the waffle stacks. Vision on a 6-axis LR Mate 200iC robot is used not only to guide the robots to
the waffles for picking, but also to screen out any broken or misshapen waffles
as an in-process quality check. Sophisticated PickTool software from FANUC
coordinates the activity of the multiple robots to share the workload and
process the incoming waffle flow. This advanced function is called “load
Picking Waffles on an Infeed Conveyor
Bread and rolls shrink significantly
from the time when they exit warm from the bakery oven, and then cool on the
way to grocery shelves. Robotic systems provide highly flexible pack-pattern
options, and apply just the right amount of compression to baked goods to
compensate for cooling and shrinkage in order to achieve the optimal shipping
density and product quality. By shipping more product in every tray, logistics
costs are significantly reduced: fewer tractor trailer trips, reduced storage
and replacement cost of in-process baskets, reduced staffing to handle baskets,
Packing Bread into Baskets and Boxes
This versatile high-speed picking system accepts frozen specialty sandwiches
from the upstream freezer and transfers them to the infeed of up to 3 flow-wrappers.
Highly advanced PickTool software coordinates the activity of the 18
robots in the line. In addition to accepting a variety of flavors, the system
provides tremendous operational flexibility and uptime: under normal operation,
6 robots serve each of 3 flow-wrapper infeeds, but if any flow-wrapper experiences
downtime, the speed of the remaining 2 flow-wrappers is increased and 9 robots
serve each infeed – all automatically!
Muffin Depanning and Clamshell Loading
In this example, a robot is used to transfer muffins from baking pans
to the retail “clamshell” package. Up to 48 muffins are transferred
each cycle, using a mechanical fork gripper for reliable handling. Note the
gripper changes the product spacing in two dimensions to adjust from the even
spacing of the baking pans to the 2x2 arrays used in the retail package.
The robot used as a transfer device resulted in a significant improvement
in the system uptime, by replacing a variety of wear components and individual
custom actuations with a high reliability, standard robot. Industrial robots
commonly achieve a Meat Time Between Failure (MTBF) performance of more than
Casepacking Single Serving Bowls and Cups
In this example, single-serving bowls of a grain-based breakfast product
are presented in lanes to an auxiliary device that inverts alternating bowls.
The robot picks a group of bowls that are right-side up, then immediately
picks a matching group of upside-down bowls from the auxiliary device. This
picking sequence, combined with a collapsing actuation in the robot gripper,
nests the tapered bowls into a high-density pack pattern for maximum shipping
efficiency. Four cases are packed simultaneously to achieve production rates
of more than 300 per minute.
Single Serve Bowl Packing
This method outperforms conventional alternatives with its lower capital
cost, higher reliability and maintainability.
In another single portion cup casepacking application, that uses an
M-420iA and an M-421iA
robot, single-serve portion and condiment cups are shown. Initially, a conveyor
system is used to present products to the robot, while an auxiliary device
handles layer separator sheets. The robot then picks directly from the indexing
table of the filler (machine), and handles layer separators as well.
Single Portion Cup Casepacking
Single Portion Cup Casepacking
Finally, the robot picks directly from the filler and then passes the
products past an inkjet-printer to apply a date code “on the fly”.
In all applications, the robot gripper adjusts the spacing from the infeed
to fit within the case inside dimensions.
Single Portion Cup Casepacking
Packing Single Serve Coffee Pouches
In the following example, a food-grade 6–axis M-430iA
robot loads empty coffee packets to a filling machine. If you look closely,
a small tab is visible on each packet. This is the filling tab and it is
randomly oriented on the infeed conveyor. FANUC America' iRVision
is used for guidance and to determine the proper orientation of the fill tab
so that the filling process proceeds smoothly.
Picking and Packing Coffee Pouches
In this example, robots are used to casepack single-serving bags. Advanced
application software is used to coordinate the picking and placing activities
of all three robots, including tracking the status of the fill level of the
corrugated cases on the outfeed conveyor. Vision guidance combined with vacuum
grippers allows for simple conveyance, fast changeover, and high reliability.
Bags not cut into single-serving bags appropriately are skipped and
not stacked, as shown below.
In another similar application, a unique multi-part mechanical gripper
and robot motion is used to create the packing pattern within the case.
With a simple gripper changeover, the system accommodates 5 lb. and
20 oz. bags, and packs to plain corrugated cases as well as cases lined with
Casepacking Olive Pouches
In another example, two different sizes of bags of soup are casepacked
in the same system. A unique feature of this system is the innovative gripper
that mimics the pinching motion of the human hand to pick fluid bags.
Picking Fluid Soup Pouches
This system is complemented by easy changeover to a vacuum system that
handles frozen bags securely.
Picking Frozen Soup Pouches
High Speed Bag Palletizing
In this example, two robots are used to achieve high throughput rates
in a bag palletizing application. Note that the robots are installed at two
different elevations to optimize the performance of one robot for the lower
half of the load, and the other robot for the upper half. Sophisticated software
prevents collisions of the two robots during operation.
High Speed Bag Palletizing
Many products in addition to food are transported in bags, such as pet
food, gardening products, construction materials, powdered ingredients, etc.
Many customers struggle with ergonomics issues when placing human operators
in environmentally dangerous work atmospheres. In this case, a nasty ergonomics
problem has been solved. Note the back brace and respirator on the operator
Traditional Bag Fill and Palletizing
In this installation the robot is used instead, with minimal impact
on floor space while providing a significant improvement in productivity and
Robotic Bag Fill and Palletizing
In this operation, the bags are placed on a fill nozzle to be filled.
After the bags are filled, a multi-function gripper and an M-710iB robot is used to palletize each bag efficiently.
Picking and Packing Produce
In one application example, lettuce
heads are first dropped randomly on a conveyor.
Randomly Placed Heads of Lettuce
After the lettuce heads are singulated,
a vision system measures the shape and form of the lettuce and determines
where to cut the root.
Singulating Lettuce Heads
iRVision® Used to Measure Lettuce
The FANUC LR Mate 200iB
robot helps to perform a second check on the lettuce head to determine its
size. If it passes the final test, the lettuce head is then placed successfully
into plastic trays.
Lettuce Heads that Pass the Final Test
This system highlights the benefits of robotics compared to a manual
operation. With manual casepacking, handling of eggs can vary widely across
individual employees and over the course of a shift as fatigue sets in.
Users of this automated casepacking system all report significant yield improvements,
with fewer cracked eggs. Higher employee morale and customer satisfaction
have also been key benefits of the systems.
Picking and Palletizing Cheese
This application uses 6-axis R-2000iB
robot, 6-axis M-710iC robot and a 4-axis
M-410iB robot to rack and unrack balls
of Edam cheese to be stored for the aging process.
Cheese Picking for the Aging Process
High speed multi-part vacuum and mechanical grippers are used to transfer
them to the infeed of a coating machine where they get their distinctive red
paraffin wax coating. Quick product changeovers are accomplished to accept
three different product diameters/weights.
Placing Cheese on a Conveyor
The cheeses continue through wrapping and labeling processes to a robotic
casepacking system. After the cases are closed they are conveyed to the robotic
Palletizing Packaged Cheese Boxes
In another cheese packaging application, cheese packages are slit and
separated into individual products which need to be labeled with a date code.
A vision-guided M-430iA robot identifies
the packages after the slitting operation and transfers them with proper orientation
to a conveyor feeding the downstream labeling machine. The USDA-accepted
M-430iA is “clean sheet” robot
design for food applications. It is inspectable and cleanable, and resistant
to chemical attack, providing an excellent platform for sanitary food-processing
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