Making cobots work at the end of the line

03 March 2024

Find out how Ornua Ingredients has integrated a cobot into end-of-line palletising operation, ensuring the safety of operators working alongside it.

With food and beverage manufacturers facing an unpredictable global economy and increasing labour shortages, improving efficiencies has become a key challenge in the pursuit of profitable production lines for many operations. 

Increasing automation and robotics on production lines can offer the ability to increase consistency, eliminate bottlenecks and reduce downtime due to a lack of personnel or space needed to meet peaks in demand. 

In many manufacturing operations the addition of collaborative robots (cobots) can help overcome labour shortages. Using Ornua Ingredients as an example, it has integrated a cobot into a UK-based production line to take over one of the most labour-intensive operations –end-of-line palletising – which required operators to manually handle a variety of heavy dairy products.
“We looked at palletisation as the first area to deploy automation due to the number of high human resource that the operation required,” explained Jack Cotton, Continuous Improvement Lead at Ornua. “When we learned about what Universal Robots UR20 cobot was able to do, we were excited by the capabilities, both in terms of the capacity it could lift and the arm reach, which were a good fit for the delicate products we required support for.” 

Overcoming challenges
No robot integration project comes without its challenges. According to Andy Parker, Head of Operations at Ornua Ingredients Europe, introducing the robot into the production process was a significant people change project. “Safety was a paramount consideration within the process as the new robot would be operating alongside our team, so throughout the process we needed to ensure we could deliver a system with exemplary safety credentials,” he said

“The safety of our people is always our number one priority. In this case, we were operating in a relatively tight working space, so we had to carefully consider the interface between employees, the cobot and forklift trucks, while still allowing access to the cobot as part of the operational sequence,” continued Andy. “We installed a combination of fixed guarding and light curtains to ensure that operators remain in a safe environment at all times, while giving them the flexibility that they need to perform their roles.”

The robotic system needed to have the ability to pick non-uniform blocks within the same SKU. “We needed a solution that could lift product ranging from 6kg to 12kg in weight and also a number of different package shapes and sizes. This took a few modifications and revisions to perfect, but we ended up with a that delivers the flexibility that we wanted. The system also has capacity to handle packages of up to 20kg if required. 

“We also wanted to have the ability to quickly change settings between SKUs, and the control mechanism allowed us to do that. To change the robot’s operation, you just open a simple visual interface on the robot itself, and enter the size of the box, its weight, and the pattern required. Changing from one SKU to another is quite simple,” said Andy.
Operators interact with the cobot through a dedicated system human machine interface (HMI) which has a simple selection of options for the operation, and an easy stop/start process for changing pallets. New products and stacking patterns are simple to initially configure, and then change as required. “The general operator feedback has been very positive, and all initial snags have been closed out,” concluded Andy.

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