Feed mills of all sizes have long benefited from the efficiencies offered by automated palletizing systems, yet many who have not adopted the technology may be unaware of how far robotic systems have evolved in the last decade.
“I think some consumers still have the mind set that robots are too complex, but now, 99% of the time any issues can be resolved with a phone call,” says Phil Wright of Icon Robotics, an integrator and manufacturer of palletizing and packaging systems, a division of JMP Ltd. In the past, automated systems may have required staff engineers to program, maintain and work with robots; however, advances in technology have made systems user friendly, with simplified interfaces and easy-to-program configurations.
Businesses introducing automated systems for the first time tend to try to address the most difficult and least forgiving portions of their operation; however, they may not be prepared for the complications that can come with complex machinery implementations.
“This is a mistake for the first system because you’re really going to strain everyone,” Wright explains, noting that the overall experience may not meet the user’s expectation for a seamless adoption into the facility’s workflow. “We often say take baby steps — choose a system that’s easy to automate and will deliver the greatest return.”
Automated palletizing systems are one of the more basic implementations to deliver major gains in cost savings, worker safety and productivity — not to mention an attractive return on investment.
To discuss their experiences with implementing automated systems, Feed & Grain spoke with three feed mills of various sizes to get their feedback on a number of key areas and to offer advice to peers who may be on the fence about investing in these technologies.
Increased output, labor savings
For Kerr Feed & Grain, a small, family-owned feed supplier and one-stop shop retail outfit in rural Henrietta, TX, the primary goals of its investment in a Chantland-MHS system with a Fuji robot were to prevent injury and eliminate the man-hours it took to physically stack its bagged feed products.
Prior to making the investment in the system, workflow through Kerr Feed & Grain’s warehouse went like this: One employee hung bags, one did the sewing, two stacked the feed, and another drove the forklift. Today, all manual lifting has been eliminated and only three employees work the line.
Wade Bryant, general manager and the fourth generation of the Kerr family, explains how bags now move through the packaging portion of the mill: A bag enters on one of two lines and hangs on the bagging scales to be filled until it meets the requisite weight and is dropped onto a flat conveyor standing vertically. After it is sewn, Chantland’s knockdown-turner conveyor pulls the end out from under it so the bag lays flat before moving it to the bag flattener to even out the product. The prepped feedbags move to a pickup conveyor where the Fuji robot places bags on one of two stacking stations. The robot loads each side until the pallet has reached the determined load amount. Once the pallet is full, the forklift driver removes it and resets the station. The robot moves to the other stacking station and alternates back and forth.
“The new system has significantly increased our productivity while delivering significant cost savings,” Bryant notes. Kerr Feed & Grain’s new system stacks 60 tons of bagged feed/day at full capacity; the company produced 15,000 tons of feed, annually. Bryant’s estimated ROI is three years.
Automation expands opportunity
While popular sentiment among employees is that robotics equate to job loss, in actuality, many times the operators are retained and reassigned them elsewhere within the company.
“Employees see us walk in and they are worried they will lose their job, but typically it’s the opposite,” Wright says. “The companies that don’t automate are the ones who end up downsizing. The more efficient the plant, the more profitable it becomes and it keeps growing because it can keep its costs down.”