Hard numbers always trump soft benefits when judging automation projects, but the case for soft paybacks is getting stronger and more compelling for food companies coming to grips with higher food safety requirements and labor-availability issues.
Those calculations can’t be made, however, unless automation can reasonably duplicate human movement. That’s one of the major challenges for robotic systems, particularly as they move further upstream in packaging and processing applications. End-of-arm (EOA) tools must be able to handle products with the same dexterity and gentleness of the human hand.
Vacuum often is involved when fabricating such tools, but an alternative approach is being applied in a pilot project at Taylor Farms Pacific, Tracy, Calif. The early-stage project involving EOA tools fabricated by Soft Robotics Inc. is under way to see if a pick-and-place robot can effectively assemble salad kits and transport easily damaged grapes and other produce.
The tool’s grippers are inflated to 1-13 psi, depending on the rigidity required, and can run through four inflation/deflation cycles every second, according to Carl Vause, CEO of Cambridge, Mass.-based Soft Robotics (www.softroboticsinc.com). Fabricated from surgical-grade Delrin acetyl resin, the grippers were inspired by the tentacles of an octopus and can handle payloads of 200g/7 oz. to 2kg/4.4 lb. Grippers that can handle 13-lb. loads are being tested. The technology is licensed from research chemists at Harvard University.
Bakery, poultry and produce represent the most likely opportunities for the robotic work cells, Vause believes. Sanitary design is reflected in the materials of construction. Soft Robotics expects to receive certification under new robotic sanitary standards developed by 3A, which could pave the way for use in dairies and other hygienic applications.
When interfacing with robotic arms, the tools are agnostic. Seven-axis articulated arm robots from Yasakawa Motoman were integrated with them by Henzen Manufacturing International, and ABB Flex-Pickers were used by JLS Automation for the Taylor Farms test. “It’s no longer a project, it’s a product that people already are using,” says Vause.
In a testimonial, Taylor Farms president Alan Applonie calls the pilot “the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on in my career.” Elimination of ergonomic injuries and improved accuracy and precision in product placement are benefits, but adaptability may be the biggest advantage. The short lifecycle of most products often thwarts payback from automation projects, he notes; the adaptability of the EOA tool increases the likelihood of successful redeployment if a product flops.
Pick, inspect & place
While Taylor Farms hopes to harvest a bumper crop of soft benefits, it already is reaping a hard benefit: system cost. Most patents for Delta robots have expired, resulting in plunging prices. More than 50 Delta OEMs now fabricate those pick-and-place arms, and prices are half what they once were, according to some system integrators.
New suppliers are offering manufacturers more than lower prices. Added benefits include more axes of motion, longer reach and heavier payloads, with a Delta arm capable of handling 90kg (198 lbs.) available.
Enhanced functionality that adds payback value is another change, with 3D vision extending the machines into quality-assurance tasks. Besides guiding pick arms, two-dimensional cameras have helped to reject products with imperfections like burn marks on buns for some time, notes Craig Souser, president of JLS Automation (www.jlsautomation.com), York, Pa. But 3D represents “a new dimension in capabilities,” allowing automated systems to evaluate product attributes such as voids in energy bars or the height of stacks of sliced deli meats.
Faster algorithms and advanced imaging systems make inspection possible without slowing down the robot. JLS is integrating into a system a Cognex In-Sight camera with a dedicated processor. “That provides plenty of bandwidth to do the calculations,” says Souser. He notes the camera also performs tracking and guidance duties, functions typically performed by a 2D camera.
Hygienic design is one of food processors’ top considerations when automating processes, and Souser doesn’t believe the current generation of collaborative robots measures up to industry sanitary standards. Downstream processes are less demanding, however, and collaborative machines are entering the market for secondary packaging activities, such as palletizing.
Richard Barr, president and CEO of MGS Machine (www.mgsmachine.com), Maple Grove, Minn., incorporated a collaborative unit from Fanuc in a palletizer he is introducing. The collaborative palletizer can handle payloads of up to 77 lbs. and operates without fencing, shrinking the footprint in half, according to Barr.