Packaging is among the most common applications of industrial robots in food manufacturing. This is because in the packaging stage, the nature of the products is uniform so the process of automating the task is simpler. Tasks in the earlier stages, such as the actual food manufacturing process, are more difficult to automate using robots.
In this article, we will introduce seven applications of robots in food packaging that every food manufacturer should know about. We will also cover the 3 stages of packaging: primary, secondary, and tertiary stages.
Primary Packaging Stage
Packaging of Raw Food
The primary stage of packaging involves wrapping processed, or even raw, food products. However, the shapes and sizes of the packages may vary greatly depending on what the food product is. This is stage can be challenging for robots when they have to package inconsistently shaped raw foods like broccoli. For processed food such as cookies, robots can easily grasp them because of their consistent size.
Pick & Place Applications
Since processed food products usually have uniform sizes and shapes, robotic grippers can easily handle them. However, automated processing machines produce randomly scattered products most of the time. Robot arms have become popular solutions for packaging these kinds of products. Remember that the success of your production line will depend on the reliability of your robots, so make sure that you find a trusted robot arm supplier.
Robotic arms designed for pick and place applications can identify, arrange, and place products simultaneously. Another non-robotic way to accomplish pick and place tasks is fixturing, but this method cannot adapt to product changes and it occupies a large space. Delta robots are famous for orienting products into packets as they use vision systems to help them detect the products’ orientation.
Have you ever tried baking at home? Then surely you know how tricky it is to remove cakes from pans. Companies that mass produce baked goods use large pans for baking. Robots can help remove the goods from the pans during the primary packaging process. This is because in robotic depanning, a specialized tool, like a vacuum or small pins, is used to pick up baked goods.
The denesting process involves the removal of empty packages from stacks. It is often done together with depanning. For instance, after the denesting machine removes packages from a stack, the depanning machine places baked goods in them. The challenge here is to design a robotic packaging system that can process different products without occupying a large space. One solution is to use replaceable conveyors, but it would be very costly.
Secondary Packaging Stage
In secondary packaging, machines take individually packaged goods and group them into cases or boxes. Since the products have already been sealed in the primary packaging process, there is no risk of contaminating them. This makes it easier to implement the boxing process using robots.
Collaborative robots (cobots) are commonly used for various tasks in secondary packaging, especially when dealing with delicate food products. You can even use cobots to handle packages that are difficult to grasp like flexible bags for example.
Tertiary Packaging Stage
The last stage of the packaging process is to prepare the boxed products for shipping. This is the tertiary packaging stage where the boxed products are stacked on pallets. Aside from the food industry, the beverage industry also uses robotic systems for palletizing applications. Craft breweries use robotic arms to boost their production as well as to prevent worker injuries.
The last application of robotic systems we are going to discuss is in warehouse automation. There are many benefits of warehouse automation including the following: reduced costs, greater accuracy and efficiency, sustainability, and additional space.
The process of transporting palletized products requires a large amount of labor, especially when you have a lot of products you need to store in your warehouse. To streamline your warehousing processes, you can use Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) to transport packaged goods.
Aside from AGVs, you can also use Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs) which are newer versions of robots designed for warehousing applications. AMRs can perform the same tasks that AGVs can (transporting inventory), but their similarities end here. AGVs are bulky machines that follow fixed routes to navigate within the facility. On the other hand, AMRs use sophisticated maps and sensors to help them interpret their environment.
Food packaging companies have been using robots in their processes for several years now. Even if you are a small company, you can still use robots to automate every stage of your packaging process. Through this, your human workers can focus more on tasks that require critical thinking.
If you cannot afford big industrial robotic arms, you can use collaborative robots, which are smaller. Collaborative robots are ideal for automating tasks that deal with lower production volumes.