“The [Columbia/Okura] operating system is easy to use and consistently makes it easy to transition the equipment between plants, easy for start-ups and for any employee to understand,” explains Dustin Varvil, director of manufacturing, eastern business unit, Ridley Inc. A typical system is set up like this: The feed goes into an automated packaging scale where it is weighed and dumped into a bag; then it is hand fed into a sewing machine. Once the bag is laid on to the conveyor, it is delivered to the robotic system where it goes over a teardrop conveyor to even the feed out in the bag. The bag makes its way over the rollers where the robot picks it up and places it on to a wood or plastic pallet. At full capacity, the robotic system stacks 14 bags/minute.
Varvil urges management not to underestimate the importance of cross-training employees: “You spend so much time investigating the equipment and getting the it in place, so it’s easy to forget that I have to leave and these other employees are the ones who have to run it everyday. These systems can be intimidating to someone who doesn’t want to break the system. Don’t underestimate the amount of training they may need. We invest enough money so that employees are comfortable with it before the tech leaves, and that’s where our success lies.”
According to the equipment manufacturers and the end users interviewed, palletizing systems rarely experience serious mechanical problems. Though in extreme cases where they do require supplier maintenance, problems are typically caused by operator error or the wear of long-term use.
“Some machines run for two years without maintenance — which is different than it was 15 years ago,” says Wright, Icon Robotics. “The first U.S. system we installed in 1998 is still running today. Some companies may want to overhaul every decade, but the life expectancy is unknown. Maybe at the 20-year mark you would need to evaluate if you want to upgrade, but it’s not uncommon for any robot to run 10 to 15 years without any reason to change it out.”
Bryant, Kerr Feed & Grain, admits he was originally hesitant about the mechanical and electronic side of things, but his concerns have been proven unfounded: “I would suggest anyone set their worries aside because what we’ve seen and from what we’ve heard, these are well built pieces of equipment with very little downtime.”
Alizadeh, Otter Feeds, concludes: “Automated systems more than cost savings; it’s an investment for a better future.”