August 14, 2017 | Brian Wallheimer

Factors to Consider when Upgrading to Automation

Robots can improve workflow and reduce injuries, but it’s important to get the right fit for your operation.

Factors to Consider when Upgrading to Automation

A feed facility built today may come standard with automatic bagging, sealing and palletizing equipment, but that hasn’t always been the case. That technology comes with the possibility of reducing costs, improving production and many other factors, but older facilities that are considering an upgrade should keep a number of considerations in mind to get the best fit for their operation.

Bulky autonomous systems fit easily into buildings designed for them, but some creative placement might be required for a retrofit. An analysis of whether an upgrade will work must also include timing, return on investment, labor issues and the type of materials being packaged.

The promise of improving an operation is certainly feasible for many companies, especially if they walk through their goals with salespeople.

Still, there are situations in which goals don’t line up with the results a company might see.

“There are times it doesn’t make sense,” says Steve McEachron, Concetti product manager for Bratney Companies of Urbandale, IA. “It depends on the value of the product, tonnage bagged and man-hours worked.”

Finding a reason

The most common thing Brad Schultz, director of sales at Magnum Systems in Kansas City, KS, hears as the reason customers want to automate is to reduce labor costs.

“They want to eliminate a human,” Schultz says. “The problem is, it never seems to work that way. In reality, the human is more often than not ‘promoted’ from the mundane tasks that automation can handle to a new and more rewarding job of ‘automation equipment manager/technician.’”

Bag fillers have a range of automation, with some automatically moving bags to the filling area, while others require a person to attach the bag, which is filled and sometimes guided toward other machines that can flatten and seal the bags.

Even with the most automation, a technician will likely be on hand to step in if a bag doesn’t load correctly, to troubleshoot or to make repairs in the event a machine breaks down.

Another common reason an operator might want to automate is to speed up production. But whether you can speed up depends on the type of product and whether it can be moved any faster based on the operation in the rest of the facility.

“Trying to do anything below seven to 10 bags a minute, doesn’t pay to automate at the front end except maybe with a bag placer,” says Brad Hentzen, regional sales manager at Chantland MHS in Dakota City, IA. “When you start getting into higher rates of packaging, then you can think about full automation.”

Those plants that mix sweet feeds, which tend to be sticky, might also find automation a waste. Those feeds tend to stick to hoppers or the buckets are sometimes used to fill bags, requiring an employee who can keep equipment clean and flowing, a process that will likely require stopping the system from time to time.

“Some of the materials just don’t want to lend themselves to automation,” says Steve Spurling, regional sales manager at Magnum Systems.

Still, automation in the right circumstances can improve efficiency and consistency.

End of the line

Those who want to automate only a portion of their operation are most likely to get the best advantage from the palletizing end, even if production isn’t on the higher end. Workers lifting heavy bags, twisting and setting them onto a pallet can lead to multiple types of injuries.

“It’s a very labor-intensive operation, but that’s the way most of them started out, and many still do it that way,” Spurling says.

Lifting bags is a gruelling job where back injuries are common.

Not only might an automatic palletizer save an employee from injury, but it can also save the company money.

“Palletizing should help their workmans’ comp situation and lower insurance rates most,” McEachron says.

The physically taxing work also makes it difficult for many companies to keep the position staffed. Adding an automated palletizer can eliminate the need to bring on new people frequently.

Managers in this industry agree that securing and keeping personnel in feed facilities is getting harder and harder, sometimes forcing companies to hire six people in order to keep three.

Systems can stagger bags to make compact pallets, and more advanced systems can wrap the pallets and load new ones as the old ones are moved away.

There is something for every budget. Companies can start with a semi-automatic system and upgrade as thier needs change.

Return on investment will be key to just how far a facility wants to go. The cost of equipment may be too high for some. Most equipment dealers can help walk through the financial returns one might expect with an automated system.

For those ready to fully automate, the system leading to the palletizer can include bagging, flattening and sealing. Some systems require an employee to feed bags into the system. That’s more common, Schultz says, when product isn’t a consistent size or bag material makes automation difficult.

“Bags have to be exactly the same, not stuck together, and the product has to be consistent,” Schultz says. “Automation hates any kind of change.”

And for those who do decide to only partially automate and want to go with a front-end bagging system, they can choose inclined conveyors that feed bags to workers higher off the ground to minimize the need to bend over while grabbing a bag to stack on a pallet.

Dealing with details

Once a facility determines the best level of system, it’s time to get the details in line. One of the biggest issues will be space.

“It used to be that you designed for the feed mill and the bagger was somewhat an afterthought,” McEachron says.

That means many bagging and palletizing systems are already in cramped spots. Upgrading may mean rearranging a facility or adding on a little more space.

“Unless someone is doing a total renovation or is willing to move the line, older facilities don’t typically have the height or the footprint to upgrade,” McEachron says. “When you start showing them the drawings of the space it will take, they’re usually pretty surprised. Typically, we can overcome it if the customer is willing to move the packing line to another location on-site.”

After looking at footprint, height becomes the next consideration.

Spurling says many manual lines use gross-weigh bagging scales. Those weigh product directly in the bag during the fill cycle and require less height from floor to hopper discharge.

“When you go to automated bag placing, you’re going to need a net-weigh scale,” he says. “These net-weigh scales are much taller by nature, because they have a bucket the product is released into and then put into the bag.”

The height in some cases may need to double, which can require moving other pieces of equipment.

“You end up with a lot of reconstruction and costs from moving that hopper or having it lifted up 30 inches or so to get an automated bag hanger under that spot,” Spurling says.

Underneath, many of the robotic pieces in automated lines need solid bases — concrete around 8 inches thick. That isn’t how many older plants were built.

“Robotic palletizers have centrifugal forces from the arc created when stacking bags that require certain concrete specs under the robot base,” Spurling says. “They might have to do some digging out to reinforce the concrete.”

Around the machinery, some space will be needed to make sure workflow is still possible.

“Don’t forget about things like room for forklift traffic,” Spurling says.

Another factor is the air around the machines. Some will have compressors that will need clean, dry air. That dry air is also helpful for keeping feed flowing so that the machines can work efficiently.

“Is it an open building?” says Matt Lawson, regional sales manager for Chantland MHS. “High heat and humidity can cause issues with product flow.”

Finally, timing will be key. Depending on the complexity of the system, the design, ordering of machinery, delivery and installation can run as long as a year. And when work starts, it may cause disruptions to workflow.

“Usually late spring through the summer is the time the feed guys want to do these installations because that’s their slower time,” McEachron says. 

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