Robotics Special Report: Cobot-Placed Top Sheets Protect Frozen Foods

The installation of 12 robotic palletizers for frozen food products necessitates the addition of two cobot cap-sheet placers to keep the cases free from dust.

In spring 2020, a frozen foods manufacturing facility out of Jackson, Ohio, installed two collaborative robot cap-sheet placers from Pearson Packaging Systems. The project followed the installation earlier in the year of 12 Pearson robotic palletizers with conveying at the same facility—fully automating what was previously an entirely manual end-of-line operation.

Shortly after the palletizing system was installed, the food manufacturer introduced a new, tear-open case into its mix of RSC and bulk-pack boxes to meet the shelf-ready requirements of retailers. Accounting for about 30% of the facility’s total production volume, the new box styles incorporated a cutout top intended to help shelf stockers easily grasp and open the cases for freezer display. Unfortunately the opening also allowed dust and other particle contaminants to enter the cases during transit and storage, so the manufacturer returned to Pearson for a top-sheet dispensing/application solution.

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The layout of the existing equipment and conveying was extremely limiting—especially since conveying transition junctures would need to remain accessible. Hence, fitting traditional slip-sheet dispensers and pick-and-place robots in the available space along with the necessary guarding to keep workers safe was not possible.

When a complete pallet stack arrives at one of the loading stations, the robot picks the cap sheet and places it on top of the stack.When a complete pallet stack arrives at one of the loading stations, the robot picks the cap sheet and places it on top of the stack.To fit within the available footprint while remaining compliant with safety guidelines, Pearson turned to cobots. The resulting dual-cell solution is able to handle the four palletizing lines dedicated to the new case, along with two additional lines, when needed. Each cell fits snugly between the existing pallet transport and takeaway conveying and houses a floor-mounted cap-sheet magazine, an automatic sheet dispenser, and a Fanuc cobot, the CR-35iA, with a payload capacity of 35 kg, designed to safely work in proximity to humans, without the need for guarding.

The mechanical sheet dispenser picks the topmost corrugated or chipboard cap sheet from the floor-mounted magazine, placing it on a receiving plate for the robot. When a complete pallet stack arrives at one of the loading stations, the robot picks the cap sheet and places it on top of the pallet stack. The pneumatic vacuum tool was designed with rounded corners and edges as an additional precautionary measure for people working nearby.

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“These collaborative robots are coated in a soft rubber material and operate at slow speeds to be able to stop without causing injury if they come in contact with a person,” explains Thomas Halish, Vice President of Robotic Integration for Pearson. “Our programmers specify application-specific data for payload, inertia rates, etc., and built-in force sensors execute a gentle stop if the robot comes in contact with anything outside of what it is expecting to encounter. A simple reset will trigger the robot to resume operation.”

Halish shares that the greatest challenge of the project was dialing in the tolerance of the robot base. “These robots are extremely sensitive to force, but by using an optimized Fanuc mounting plate, the adjustments we had to make to get it properly positioned were minimal.” 

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