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Robotic partition inserter breaks bottleneck for winery

Washington state’s Columbia Crest winery replaces an outdated mechanical partition inserter with a robotic one that more than doubles the speed of the bottling line.

The robotic partition inserter includes four robots in all: three to place the partitions, and one to tamp them down.
The robotic partition inserter includes four robots in all: three to place the partitions, and one to tamp them down.

Nestled alongside the Columbia River in eastern Washington, Columbia Crest winery opened its doors in 1983. Since then, it has grown from a small winery in a relatively unknown wine region to one of the most significant wineries in the U.S. and a major force behind Washington state’s emergence as a world-class wine region. Now owned and operated by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Columbia Crest has a facility that spans 900,000 sq ft and houses four packaging lines that together produce more than 6 million cases of wine annually.

In its early days, Columbia purchased all of its empty glass bottles in kits, with bottles supplied prepacked in corrugated cases with the partitions already inserted. In 2007, when it made the switch to bulk glass for one of its lines (there were three at the time), it needed a way to insert the partitions after case packing. While there weren’t a lot of companies at the time that supplied equipment for this process, it did ultimately find a mechanical partition inserter that handily met its needs—for a while.

Over the years, as demand grew for its wines, Columbia updated the packaging equipment upstream from the partition inserter to accommodate increased production. Eventually, as Vice President – Operations for Ste Michelle Wine Estates Eric Brinkworth explains, the mechanical inserter became a bottleneck, unable to keep up with the increased line speeds. Another major issue was the time it took to change over the machine for different partition sizes­­—Columbia produces six- and 12-ct cases of 750-mL and 1.5-L bottle sizes on the line.

With the installation of its fourth line in 2014, Columbia Crest had opted for a robotic partition inserter from Pearson Packaging Systems, rather than a mechanical one. Having had great success with this option, it looked for a similar solution to replace its mechanical inserter. For this application, it needed a compact footprint and flexibility for different case configurations. “What we look at when we purchase equipment is what we currently run for case configurations, but then we also try to look ahead and predict what other potential case configurations we may need in the future,” explains Brinkworth. “Then we try to have the machinery set up to have the flexibility to run different case configurations—whether it be bottle sizes, such as 375 or 750 milliliters or 1.5 liters, or six or 12 packs—for future potential needs.”

Columbia Crest replaced the mechanical partition inserter with a robotic one from Pearson in 2017. The system features four six-axis robots in total: three Fanuc M-10iA/12S robots and one Fanuc LRMate 200iD. Pearson also provided a continuous-motion side-belt case conveyor that provides smooth case transport from the case packer to the infeed of the insertion station to reduce damage to the glass bottles.

During operation, operators manually load six- or 12-cell chipboard partitions upright, narrow side leading, into three dual-motorized partition magazines. The partitions are picked by the three M-10iA/12 robots via adjustable fingers programmed with articulated motion that peel the blanks from the stacks. The partitions are opened with controlled arm rotation. As the cases enter the insertion area, the robots use line tracking to gauge the orientation and position of each case. The partition is then inserted in an angled motion that reduces the risk of partition damage due to folding or damage. In the final step, the single LRMate 200iD robot, also equipped with line tracking, tamps the partition below the flap score line to avoid interference when the cases are closed and sealed.

With the installation of the robotic partition inserter, Columbia Crest has eliminated the bottleneck caused by the mechanical equipment, as the robotic system offers significantly faster changeover speed—probably 75% faster, by Brinkworth’s estimation. “Basically once you have programmed a recipe, you just push the button, and it will change all the parameters,” he says. “Otherwise, all you have to do is change the fingers on the robots.”

As for speed, the robotic inserter is producing 40 cases/min, with the capability to surge up to 55/min, if need be. That’s quite an increase from the line’s former 18 cases/min.

In addition to freeing the logjam on the line, the robotic partition inserter also requires less maintenance, as the mechanical equipment had a lot more wear parts. According to Pearson, the Fanuc robots provide a Mean Time Between Failure of 80,000 to 100,000 hours. Labor has also been affected, Brinkworth says, with a 15% reduction on that machine alone.

Watch a video of the system here.

Read the full article, "Packagers Realize ROI with Robotics," here.

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