Organic growth

23 December 2008

Rachel’s Organic is turning to automation to meet growing demand for its products, boost flexibility and increase speed. The company has installed a Toshiba Machine robot at its Aberystwyth dairy to automate its end of line packaging process.

As production levels increased to a third of a million pots of yoghurt a week, so did the end of line demands, something that was becoming increasingly difficult to meet by hand. The Toshiba Machine robot was provided by TM Robotics (Europe) and integrated as part of a larger project by Soco System UK.

Tim Pink, projects and compliance manager at Rachel’s Organic explained: ‘The reason for automating is fairly straightforward. We were expanding rapidly and we could see our labour costs spiralling. This is particularly true for Rachel’s because there is almost no unemployment in Aberystwyth where we are based. As a result, labour costs are high and there just aren’t enough manual operatives available at reasonable notice. So we looked at different automated routes and concluded that a robot was the best long-term solution. Similar results could have been achieved with a linear pick and place system but that wouldn’t have provided the flexibility we require. Rachel’s is a fashionable brand and we sometimes have to change packaging in order to stay ahead of trends. If we did this with a linear system we would have had to change the automation as well.’

Soco UK was recommended to Pink by DS Smith, the packaging firm that supplies cardboard boxes to Rachel’s Organic. Pink said Soco UK very quickly built up a strong rapport with Rachel’s Organic and by the time the project reached a point where the company needed to choose second tier suppliers, he trusted the recommendations made by the integrator.

The robots are used in end of line packaging for fresh yoghurt in plastic multi-pack pots, which are sold in a cardboard sleeve. However, the robots and the system are sufficiently versatile that they could be employed on almost any product in the company’s range. The pot itself is plain while the sleeve features the majority of the information needed to comply with food standards and market the product.

Rachel’s Organic needs to meet the demands of the market while achieving the cost savings required by all food manufacturers. This means automated production wherever a manual process doesn’t add value to the product. Amongst the biggest advantages of this is speed of production. The chilled pots are processed at an impressive ninety per minute.

First the cardboard sleeve is encoded for sell by date before metal detection. Next the product is conveyed to an in-feed conveyor, controlled by the inline product counter and product phasing arm. Outer cases, which are also cardboard, are mechanically pre-formed and automatically supplied on demand to the robotic pack point. This is where the Toshiba Machine SR-1054HSP SCARA robot, fitted with bespoke pick-up heads, comes into play. The pick-up head at the pack point is designed so the robot can pick six cardboard sleeves, each containing six pots, and separate them into two sets of three. The SCARA then places them into two outer cases, each one containing a single set of three, for distribution. The robot pick-and-place operation has to be highly accurate having a maximum of eight millimetre clearance. Finally, the outer case is barcode labelled so it can be tracked in the supply chain.

‘Another benefit of the project is that it has helped us overcome problems with the manual handling regulations,’ explained Pink ‘Sometimes the best way of complying, and ensuring the safety of your staff, is to simply remove the manual element of the process. That’s what we have done here and we have certainly seen the benefits.’

Soco UK provided the handling and conveying equipment as well as the robot head and integrated the Toshiba Machine SCARA robot.

‘One novel element of the project is that a separate case erector and robot was used for the pick and place functions’, explained Peter Mapledoram, a senior consultant at Soco UK. ‘Most jobs of this nature are done using flow line machines but this would have been twice as expensive as our design. Automation is about providing the right equipment for the job and delivering quick payback – and that’s what we have achieved here.’

Before the project was automated, Rachel’s Organic handled the entire process by hand. Because the employees previously handling the process were simply put to work on higher value added tasks, the original manual system could take over again if the robot suffered any problem. However, Mapledoram believes that this is extremely unlikely.

Mapledoram said: ‘We chose the SCARAs because they are light, provide good speed ratings and are simple to use and programme at a good price. We’re extremely satisfied and my customer says he likes the Toshiba Machine equipment.’

‘I think Soco UK has found an extremely sustainable market niche,’ enthused TM Robotics’ managing director, Nigel Smith. ‘The UK food market has long been due an explosion of robotics and I believe that, thanks to the efforts of firms like Soco System, this is becoming more and more imminent. When people see the success of Rachel’s Organic and other leaders in the field I’m expecting the industry’s potential to be more than fulfilled. It’s particularly satisfying to see a company with such a vivid and rich heritage and a reputation for providing healthy products using robotics,’ concluded Smith.

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