As was the case within Otter Cooperative’s feed manufacturing division. Before it invested in its American-Newlong automated palletizing system, Otter Feeds, located in Aldersgrove, British Columbia, had employees in the feed mill manually staging and stacking 44-pound bags on pallets before the forklift operator moved the full pallets to the shrink wrapper. At that time, the mill was moving about 65 tons/day, running two eight-hour shifts with one dedicated stacking employee working each shift.
“In theory, after we added the new system, we eliminated 2.5 bodies/day,” says Vafa Alizadeh, operations manager, Otter Feeds. “We didn’t lay anybody off; we moved them around to do other tasks. Between then and now we have picked up more business and have been able to offer better customer service because of it.”
In addition, liability insurance costs tend to drop with robotic systems, as there are fewer workers’ compensation claims because the risk of lifting injuries is reduced. “By eliminating lifting we have fewer claims, fewer missed work days and our rates are better now,” Alizadeh says.
Bryant adds that in his experience a decrease in total wages paid [fewer employees] equaled less workers’ compensation and liability premiums, which create additional cost savings over and above reduced claims and lost time from injury.
No space too small
Feed mills shopping around for packing solutions are especially sensitive to the potential space constraints a new system may present; however, rest assured, manufacturers have developed solutions to meet these challenges. Many suppliers have the ability to change the configurations to suit a customer’s needs.
“Customers want a system to consume the smallest footprint possible,” says Wright. “Space is valuable and companies aren’t looking to build new sites or expand facilities because times are tight, so the goal is to do it within the existing plant.”
Typically, as bagged product moves through a facility, small spaces make it difficult to accumulate and move product, a critical portion of product flow. If there is any glitch in the system or in the replenishment of consumables, the system will go down for a bit and, without accommodations for accumulation, everything behind it goes down, Wright says. While most systems have sufficient room for accumulation on conveyors allowing the automated equipment to run continuously, extensive conveyors systems rob a mill of floor space.
To work around this challenge, the engineers of Icon Robotics, for example, introduced vertical accumulation as a solution to combat these constraints.
“By accumulating vertically from the top or the bottom, now we are taking up very little floor space rather than stretching across the plant,” Wright explains.
Otter Feeds faced its own unique challenges when considering the layout of its palletizing system. The initial thought was to automate the entire system, but due to the height of the bins above the bagger, it didn’t have room to stack the bags on the shoot after the scale, Alizadeh says. Otter’s options were to raise the bins or dig down and install everything in a pit.
Alizadeh describes the solution: “We decided to leave the bagging portion of project as is because we had the accuracy of the scale and realized that no matter how much equipment we installed it would need one operator to monitor this whole system.”
Today, the operator puts empty bags on the bagger, fills them up with feed and sends the full bag through the sewing machine, and then applies the label. The bag travels on a conveyor to a flattener to get the air out and then to a teardrop conveyor to distribute the product on the bottom of the bag before it is loaded onto yet another conveyor at the staging station. The robot picks the bag up from there, turns it 90 degrees and places it onto a pallet delivered by the pallet dispenser. The pallet is then prepped and shrinkwrapped before heading to the warehouse.
Otter Feeds’ system was installed in May 2010; the cooperative has since paid it off, a year earlier than it had anticipated.
“It’s been a great investment for us and we’ve seen great results from it,” says Alizadeh.
Training and consistent results
With proper training and experience, operators become comfortable working with robotics. When the company eventually introduces a more complex system, it will be easier to implement with a lessened learning curve. Ridley Inc. has used Columbia/Okura automated systems since 2004 in various applications, and has been installing two to four a year since 2008 in the company’s 37 feed mills.