by Glen Thompson, chief editor
BluePrint Group’s patented end-effector allows for single picks of individual products followed by one single placement of an entire stack.
Colborne Corp.’s Flexible Automation Division integrates upstream and downstream vision guided robotics equipment.
Stewart Systems OMNI-PAK Loaders utilize vacuum product handling to gently and precisely pick up packaged product and load it into the container.
LeMatic’s AutoOp vision-guided robotics system comprises an ABB FlexPicker along with proprietary vision system and smart conveyers.
Robotics technology has been something of a hard sell in the commercial baking industry. Bakers are a tactile bunch, loath to substitute cold steel for warm hands when it comes to processing their fragile products. But advances in vision-guided systems increasingly are attracting even stalwart traditionalists to the advantages of bringing a robot to work.
Why is the commercial baking industry so reticent about robotics? "Maybe we should eliminate the word robot so people can get over their fear," says BluePrint Group CEO Martin Prakken. "They are ‘standard automation modules.’" The Colonial Heights, Vir.-based packaging systems supplier is staunchly committed to advancing vision-guided robotics systems in the baking industry and, Prakken says, bakers who want to see healthy bottom lines are beginning to see the light.
"Vision-guided technology, even though it may be more expensive than mechanical alternatives, ultimately will outperform any type of mechanical collation and grouping system," Prakken says. "The fact is that robots, especially end-of-arm tooling doing simple picking from above, is not going to jam [the system]. That means the uptime on those lines is high. These robots are produced in high volumes, they are standard modules that are very simple mechanically, and the software is extremely stable."
BluePrint Group recently rolled out a patented end-effector that allows for single picks of individual products followed by one single placement of an entire stack. This use of vision-guided robotics technology, which is used for stacking pancakes, tortillas and similar bakery products, vastly increases productivity, Prakken says.
Increasingly user-friendly, vision-guided robotics generally can be broken down into two parts: the camera and camera software, and the robot and its software. Aside from lens refinements and other tweaks, robot camera technology has remained essentially unchanged. Camera software, however, has made great strides of late.
Of particular significance to the baking industry are software advances that allow cameras great flexibility and accuracy in reading text on irregular surfaces such as plastic bags used for packing baked goods. Today’s robotic cameras can be programmed with such a high degree of specificity that they are able to count the number of, and degree of separation between sesame seeds on a hamburger bun, resulting in unprecedented accuracy and consistency to the inspection process.
The current generation of robots is far more facile than its ancestors. Single-pick systems currently on the market are extremely fast and lightweight, and easily programmable.
If you are a candidate for automation, you’d be wise to consider the packaging operation of your business as a jumping-in point. "In the baking industry, as with any food or consumer product, the opportunities are in the packaging area," says Ray Anater, director of automation sales and development for Jackson, Mich.-based food equipment manufacturer LeMatic Inc. "Typically, there’s manual labor involved in packaging. People are doing visual inspection as well as aiding the process by aligning the products, so there’s two things going on there, which is why vision-guided robotics makes sense there."
LeMatic currently has two vision-guided robotic systems under development: the AutoOp flex picker, which uses a vacuum pickup for product alignment and rejection; and the IQS-400, a quality inspection system that individually measures and either accepts or rejects each bakery product.
While vision-guided robotics is widely applied at the packaging stage, upstream uses for the technology also are hitting the market. "One of the most relevant applications is for cake decorating," says Colborne Corp. Vice President of Operations Rick Hoskins. "Hard automation does not take into consideration the inconsistencies of a baked product like cake. So the icing application during cake decorating can be misapplied. By using a 3D vision system, a robot can be told exact dimensions of the cake and adjust the decorating head accordingly for precise application of the icing."
According to Hoskins, Colborne’s newest addition to its vision-guided robotics offerings is a system that uses multiple cameras across a conveyor belt. "It communicates with two 5-Axis robots so they can calculate a pick sequence to properly pick multiple products," he says. "Each robot handles half of the conveyor belt, after picking up its products it will place them into a tray. A third, redundant robot, places any products that may have not been picked by the initial two robots for various quality reasons. This system insures 100% filled pockets in the tray."
At Plano, Tex.-based Stewart Systems, the latest rollout from its new Stewart Robotic Automation Group is the OMNI-PAK loader line. These pick-and-place loaders utilize vision-guided robotics with vacuum product handling to pick up packaged product and place it into trays or directly into containers. According to Rick Rodarte, director of engineering at Stewart, the system uses vision technology "for orientation, recognition, labels, bar code reading, and also for quality control, to determine whether a package is closed properly."
Should you consider automation for your bakery? "Anybody who runs a full shift or more of a particular type of production has an opportunity to automate," BluePrint’s Prakken says.
Prakken adds that if you’re willing and able to part with anywhere from $125,000 to $250,000 per cell (depending on how much auxiliary equipment you want to spring for) then let volume be your guide.
"You could have a small bakery that could easily support 10 robots, or a really large operation with volume lines too small to put automation on any one of them."
Rodarte notes that smaller companies "seem more willing up front than larger companies" when it comes to making the leap into robotics. "More independent bakers, for manpower reasons, want to use robots to load and unload bread."
LeMatic’s Anater acknowledges that it can be an uphill battle convincing bakers of automation’s advantages. "Bakers tend to want to stick with tried-and-true approaches," he says. "You have to find a customer who believes in the technology and is willing to take a risk, and that’s not your typical customer."
Still, Anater says, the acceptance of what might seems like futuristic technology sometimes comes as an epiphany. "There’s a realization [among bakers] that their businesses cannot get any better without looking at a new way of doing things."