robots take on
give bakers a
While robots are no strangers to the wholesale baking industry, explosive growth has occurred during the last five years as their costs continue to fall and the number of jobs they can perform grows. Robots and their attendant hardware and software — the robotics that can automate so much of a baking facility — are now gaining a definitive foothold with wholesale bakers.
Benda Manufacturing Inc., Tinley Park, Ill., formerly responded to only one or two queries about robotics applications for wholesale bakers each year. Now, potential customers call weekly asking how robotics can help automate their operations, says Terry Benda, president of the food-handling systems company. “Robotics are booming,” he says. “Within the last five years, I've started seeing them in larger roles where they're replacing operators.”
Many more wholesale bakers are considering robotics implementation because the automation technology's costs have dropped by at least 50 percent in the past decade, says Rick Hoskins, vice president of operations, Colborne Corp., Lake Forest, Ill. Colborne produces automation equipment for the baking industry.
Why the steep price slash? Simple economies of scale, says Charles Gale manager, automation sales, Weldon Solutions, York, Pa., a systems integrator and robotics provider. “More people are buying them, so we can make them cheaper,” Gale says.
Today's robotics applications also are easier to maintain than in years past as robotics makers take advantage of ever-advancing technological innovation, Gale says. Advances also mean robots now perform faster than older models and can keep up with high line speeds.
These new robots can offer cost reductions to bakers in a number of ways. “In almost all cases, the large portion of value is in labor reduction,” Hoskins says. “However, in many cases there are other automation or mechanical machines available to automate the same basic tasks. In these cases, the value of robotics is typically reliability because you have fewer moving parts and more flexibility, and because robots are easily programmed, which makes it easier to adapt to different products or characteristics,” he adds. “The changeover is much faster as well.”
New on the line
Northeast Foods, Baltimore, turned to robotics four years ago for line balancing and found significant cost savings via labor reductions and reduced machine-operation costs. The bakery, which supplies buns to more than 500 McDonald's restaurants, was no stranger to automation. Much of its plant operations had already been automated before executives turned their attention to the conveyor. Prior to introducing robotics, two employees were responsible for final inspection and line balancing.
Though the employees did their jobs with accuracy and precision, Northeast Foods decision makers realized the repetitive job and the challenges of inspecting and balancing 5,000 dozen buns per hour meant new employees wouldn't exactly be keen on steping into the role when the present inspectors moved on.
They turned to two FlexPicker robots from industrial robot maker ABB Robotics, New Berlin, Wis. Northeast's new robotics system includes a vision camera trained on all six lines in the plant. Software tied to the camera sends detailed information to the robots about gaps coming down the line. The software instructs the robot to move buns from full lanes to empty lanes to achieve a balanced flow of product.
“Since we began running the line in July 2004, equipment downtime has been minimal. The robot requires very little maintenance aside from replacing the rubber suction cups that pick up the buns,” says a Northeast Foods' representative. The suction cups need to be replaced every three to four days because of the high-speed production.
The robots do their work as the conveyor moves 120-ft.-per-minute. Northeast Foods worked with ABB to ensure the robots could meet Northeast Foods' 80 parts-per-minute handling requirement.
Collaboration between baker and robotics supplier leads to another reason for robotics' growing popularity, Gale says. Robots today can be easily programmed to perform a variety of specialized applications and to handle products in a particular manner.
For instance, the robots that package the éclairs made by the Italian pastry maker Forno Bonomi, Rovere Veronise, Italy, use a decidedly light touch when picking up the pastries. Four robots — also from ABB Robotics and tied to a vision system — pick the éclairs from the belt and gently place them on plastic trays in three layers of seven. The robots display that delicacy thanks to the gentle grip of the suction cups, which Bonomi worked with ABB to design, says Renato Bonomi, who co-owns the baking operation with his brother. The robots also are flexible enough to work in a narrow space, he adds.
But bakers don't need to necessarily team with a vendor or integrator to program their robots. Now, robotics suppliers, such as Weldon Solutions, can train a customer, who has never even seen a robot up close, to write a software program that will automatically guide the robot to perform a set of tasks. Training takes about 15 minutes, Gale says. “Before, you'd have to hire someone to do this for you. But robotics companies are making it much easier to rewrite programs and making them user-friendly. Should a robot not function as desired, or should a new function be sought, the robot can usually be reprogrammed in an afternoon,” he adds.
More and varied work
Robotics also has seen its popularity surge with bakers because of the stepped-up list of tasks these advanced machines can perform on the baking line. The robots of 10 years ago moved in only two dimensions, forward and back or up and down, which meant they could only carry out limited operations, such as physically picking up and moving an object a short distance, Benda says.
Today's robots demonstrate a much wider range of motion, and they're often tied to vision systems, which essentially gives them sight and allows them to carry out a number of tasks not possible even a few years ago, he adds.
These physically versatile robots have a stepped-up role to play in the wholesale baking industry. They now are automatically packaging products at the end of the line, and picking and packing orders for shipping. When tied to a vision system, robots balance production by reading line gaps to ensure conveyors are properly filled with product, as at Northeast Foods.
“Inline pan balancing makes the system more efficient and reduces injuries,” Benda says. “It's a physically demanding job to handle hot and heavy pans all day long.” Robots also are regularly moving into roles formerly handled by manual operators, such as forming patterns and then loading the product into trays and cartons. Today's robots also are capable of stacking and unstacking baking pans, trays and peel boards, Benda adds.
Order picking is another new job for robots. “The bakery route driver is making up his orders for the day and has to pick product from multiple stacks of trays to build a complete order for a customer. These stacks are typically 8 ft. tall, making for a very difficult and time-consuming task,” Benda explains. “Robots can now automatically build these orders.” In some cases, they can even load the truck.
Today's robots also have a role to play in the swiftly changing package sizes now demanded by consumers and retailers, says Ray Anater, director of automation sales and development at automation supplier LeMatic Inc., Jackson, Mich. His company has been following a trend of late that calls for baked products to be packaged in ever-changing quantities. Robots can scale to package these varied amounts, he adds.
“Traditionally in the baking industry if you make hamburger or hotdog rolls, they would be packaged in an eight-count bag or a 12-count bag,” Anater says. “But now, we are seeing a move toward smaller packaging sizes. So, that means the packaging equipment also needs to be more flexible, to scale up or scale down. And now the robotic handling of the equipment is inherently flexible, which will drive the use of robotics in packaging.”
LeMatic also produces robots tied to a vision system, capable of balancing products on the conveyor line and loading English muffins, buns and croissants onto trays. “The traditional method of using gravity slides to guide products isn't 100 percent effective,” Anater says. “Either they get stuck or hung up, so an operator is needed to balance products across the lanes.”
Like other robotics providers, LeMatic expects to see sales grow as bakers discover robots increased ease of use and as they consider how robotics can give them a competitive edge.
Any residual doubts should fade away as wholesale bakers speak with each other and meet with system integrators to discuss needs, Gale says. “Clients have a higher comfort level than they did because they hear these success stories, and they're trying to find ways to incorporate robotics into their operations,” he adds.
So, what of the future? More of the same, only better, Benda says. Robots will become an everyday part of the operation, performing line balancing, tray stacking and order picking on a regular basis. Both Hoskins and Benda look forward to robots that can perform cleaning duties in a plant's wash-down area.
They agree that when it comes to wholesale baking applications, robots are here to stay. “More and more, bakeries will find out that it's economical to use robotics,” Benda says. “That's really the future.”