Rapid pick and place solution for sweetcorn cobs

05 June 2015

A UK factory trial involving a FANUC M-10iA series robot and vacuum gripper technology has proved that it is possible to pick and place sweetcorn cobs at speeds of 180 packs per minute.

In addition to providing proof of principle that robotics can be employed to handle such challenging products, the trial also demonstrated that on a line manned by two operators per shift, the robot could pay for itself within a year. 

Theoretically, this robot-gripper combination could be applied to any flow wrapped cylindrical fresh produce.

“We were delighted with the outcome of the trial,” said John Rainer, regional sales manager at FANUC UK. “It is the first time, to our knowledge, that sweetcorn cobs have been handled by an articulated arm robot, which has the potential to reduce capital outlay compared to the use of delta robots.  Loading sweetcorn into the flow wrapper infeed has always been a labour intensive task, because no automated solution existed.

“The advantages of using robotics for this application are huge. The cost-savings that are gleaned from replacing human labour with a robot at a lower price point alone justify the capital investment. Added to this, a robot will assume this dull, repetitive task with precision, at a consistently high speed, delivering significant production efficiency improvements and eliminating the repetitive strain injuries associated with this type of activity.”

In the trial, after being manually dehusked, pairs of sweetcorn cobs were being picked from a conveyor by the M-10iA robot and placed into pockets within a flighted belt feeding the flow wrapper.

While this system was configured to load two cobs at a time, it had the capability to pick and place up to six cobs simultaneously. Furthermore, for even faster speeds, the M-10iA could be replaced with a larger robot, whose 20kg payload would enable up to 12 cobs to be handled in one movement, potentially doubling output to 360 packs per minute.

The robot used in this trial was integrated by FANUC’s partner, Pacepacker Services, who also developed a special vacuum gripper for this application. “A standard vacuum cup would struggle to create and hold a vacuum on the uneven, curved surface of a sweetcorn cob, and any other type of gripper would damage the product. We engineered a special vacuum system that moulds around the cob. The vacuum is gentle, efficient and reliable,” said Paul Wilkinson, business development manager at Pacepacker Services.

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