Automation / Innovation

Flexible Manufacturing: The Automation Conundrum

October 1, 2011
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Flexibility is an increasingly important attribute, but manufacturing professionals must strike a balance between the need for high-speed automation and production adaptability.

Suction end-effectors gently pick up ice cream bars for placement in an open-front carton. Thanks to dramatically lower costs for vision-guided robotics, flexible automation solutions are proliferating in secondary packaging. Source: Blueprint Automation.


The latest in engineering innovation and automation was on display in 1984 when PepsiCo Inc.’s Frito-Lay division opened its Casa Grande, AZ snack food plant. The project was sufficiently impressive to warrant designation as Food Engineering’s 1985 Plant of the Year.

Among the facility’s leading-edge technologies at the time was an automatic storage and retrieval system (AS/RS), complete with automatic guided vehicles to ferry full pallets to the AS/RS. The AGVs long since have been replaced by lift trucks, but the AS/RS continues to serve the high-volume plant’s warehousing needs.

Fast forward a quarter of a century to Avon, NY, where Barilla America operates Food Engineering’s 2008 Plant of the Year. Servo-driven case packers and other automation advances are reflected at Avon, but AS/RS was not even considered. The days of shipping full pallets already had ended, and Barilla engineers designed a warehouse work cell with minimal automation and many human hands to generate the shrink-wrapped multi-packs for club stores and mixed pallets that large retailers are demanding. In Casa Grande, that kind of customization isn’t possible, and full pallets must be sent to another site to fulfill those orders.

Absent the gift of clairvoyance, engineers can’t design machines and systems to meet needs far into the future. Even when change is anticipated, technical limitations may put a solution out of reach. Consequently, manufacturing adaptability requires a cautious approach to automation. Consistency and throughput rates require high-speed equipment, but shifting customer requests and changing package sizes and product lineups are yellow caution flags on the automation racetrack.

Flexibility carries a premium for copackers and contract manufacturers, and shorter contracts and smaller production runs have put the brakes on recent automation projects, suggests Mike Wagner, business manager of OEM packaging solutions at Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation. “Before the recession, they had to automate to keep up with their orders, and the ROI on a machine was one order,” he says. In today’s environment, payback is harder to achieve, and the availability of skilled maintenance personnel forces some companies to do more hand-packing in secondary packaging than they would like. “Nobody’s going to invest for a one-year contract,” agrees David Dixon, a senior director with Kansas City’s Burns & McDonnell.

But the cost and availability of labor, coupled with broad adoption of advanced robotics in secondary packaging, is paving the way to more flexible automation, even in markets deemed automation averse. In China, contract manufacturers are investing heavily in automation as rising wages make manual processes less attractive. Wagner cites Foxconn Technology Group, the world’s largest contract manufacturer of electronic components: The firm is investing in a 10-fold increase in robotic-motion machines and should have 300,000 cells in place next year. “You certainly have to think of machine design differently,” Wagner allows, “but robotics makes changeovers a very simple process, particularly for collators, stackers and casepackers in secondary packaging.”

While some lines have automatic case packing and palletizing systems, workers do much of the work at Shearer’s Foods’ Brewster, OH plant, where private-label and contract manufacturing account for a large portion of production.

Meet Mr. Robot

Packaging operations offer the greatest opportunity and most pressing need for flexibility. Yet the inability of continuous motion machinery to adapt has fostered an aversion to automation in many cases, particularly when future configurations of new products are in doubt.

“Some of our clients have shunned automation in recent years, particularly with new products,” notes John Gunst, a packaging engineer in POWER Engineers Inc.’s Meridian, ID office. “When you have a hard system, you’re limited in the changes you can make.” Historically, designers like Gunst included open space between flow wrappers and casepackers to accommodate the additional machinery needed to build different multi-pack pairings, “but people won’t give you the 10 feet you will need anymore,” he frets.

Some integrators have tried to resolve the issue with servo-driven collation belts, though that can complicate design, Gunst believes. A better solution is multiple scara or delta-style arms coupled with vision systems. The expiration of patents protecting 3- and 4-axis delta robots opened the floodgates of innovation, and suppliers “are selling flex pickers by the truckload,” he says.

Gunst cites the example of a multi-function machine with a small footprint from Blueprint Automation (BPA) to illustrate his point. The case erector squares up and forms the cases, then feeds them to an articulated arm for vertical packing. “It’s simple engineering but a brilliant idea,” says Gunst. “There’s no issue with restacked boxes.”

Multi-function machines can deliver unneeded flexibility. In response to German retailers, Barilla’s European operations commissioned a casepacker that could build a displayable case. The machine fabricates a cap that doubles as a display base for in-store merchandising. Unfortunately, the procedure for removing the case wrap and repositioning the cap was lost in translation to the people responsible for executing it. The machine also can output conventional cases, but Barilla ended up with a more expensive machine with unused capabilities.

Casepackers that can load French fries vertically for foodservice and horizontally for retail shipment have been BPA staples since the company’s inception, but integration of that machine with a case erector that’s “going to save you some real estate” in an 18-ft. by 5-ft. footprint enhances flexibility, according to John Rice, a mechanical engineer with Colonial Heights, VA-based BPA. Four servo axes do the work in the casepacker, with a similar number directing motion in the case erector module.

Mechanical application of base coats on ice cream was the first automation project at Celebration Foods, a conversion aimed at increasing efficiency without compromising flexibility. Source: Stanley Jesudowich.

Machines on wheels

Contract manufacturers feel the pressure to adapt with each new job. “We made the decision in the early 1980s to build in flexibility with every piece of equipment,” relates Rick Teeny, president of Portland, OR’s Teeny Foods Corp. “At that time, 90 percent of our production was branded products. Today, we are 98 percent private label.”

More than 160 types of pizza dough, breadsticks, pita breads, presheeted dough and the firm’s signature “pocket bread” are manufactured at its newest plant, which opened in 2004. “Packaging equipment is almost entirely on wheels,” says Teeny, as is a substantial share of production machinery. As automation expanded over the company’s 47-year history, management resisted the temptation to lay off workers, opting instead to train them for higher-skilled jobs. The policy has paid off with a large, well-seasoned mechanical staff. When prospective clients have requested product requiring a new line, Teeny boasts his staff has rolled in the necessary components and ramped up to full production in as little as four weeks.

“A copacker’s facility needs to provide a competitive advantage,” says Burns & McDonnell’s Dixon. “Instead of just saying, ‘Give me the specs for the product you want,’ sophisticated copackers are saying, ‘I will create added value with enhanced services.’” These might include assistance in packaging design; retail support in creating end-cap displays, pre-priced packages and coupon inserts; and pre-production development to ensure rapid scale-up and minimal waste.

Hearthside Food Solutions LLC exemplifies the value-added approach. Founded in 2009, Downers Grove, IL-based Hearthside has stitched together a 12-plant network, seven in the purchase of Consolidated Biscuit Co. Three locations boast R&D centers that are “not so much R as D,” explains Brian McNamara, vice president of sales & marketing. Brand owners typically take a new product directly from their R&D lab to a contract manufacturer, and scaling up for commercial production can be a time-consuming process. “We have to be fast and flexible to survive,” McNamara points out, and the R&D departments, along with a fabrication shop at a 1 million-sq.-ft. bakery in McComb, OH, enable Hearthside to shrink the time line for getting new products to market.

While Hearthside’s fab shop can build electrical boards and tool conveyors and other components, it is unable to fabricate advanced automation solutions. Oftentimes, these systems are only available through custom engineering, a prohibitively expensive solution that makes manual solutions the only option. That scenario plays out daily at Shearer’s Foods Inc., winner of this year’s Plant of the Year award (Food Engineering, April 2011). Shearer’s produces its own branded snack products but also does extensive work in private label. Both types of products are made at its Brewster, OH facility, where automated casepackers and robotic palletizers perform secondary packaging duties for the Shearer’s brand, while operators fill cases with different sized bags in varying patterns for retailers and other manufacturers.

Workers at Barilla America’s Avon, NY plant reassemble custom orders. Club packs, mixed pallets and other customized orders require a level of flexibility that machines can’t provide. Source: Jen Rynda.

The work is tedious, and turnover is an issue. Happily, affordable technology is becoming commercially available. Last spring, BPA sold its first vision-equipped delta-style case packer with a PLC-controlled changeover function, enabling hands-free changeover. Designed specifically for potato chips and other fragile snacks, the compact unit (4 ft. wide, 8 ft. high) hovers over a conveyor and packs up to 130 small bags a minute.

In fact, most manufacturers would gladly trade a modicum of flexibility for an automated solution at an affordable price. When New Britain, CT-based Celebration Foods LLC commenced operations in 2008, it was constrained by a $22 million budget for both construction and equipment (see Food Engineering’s April 2009 New Plant of the Year). Swarms of workers decorated its ice cream cakes, a process that management said produced a handcrafted look shoppers craved.

The remark rang of rationalization. In fact, within months of plant startup, the company began toying with a Unifiller machine on casters, wheeling it in and out of the line as engineers and mechanics experimented with “mechanically assisted” application of a base coat of icing over the ice cream. Capital constraints limited the opportunity for additional automation, but financing likely became less of an issue with Celebration’s acquisition early this year by Rich Products Corp.

Manufacturers are not about to turn their backs on technology. As order volume builds, the need and financial justification for automation increase. The trick is implementing it in such a way that you can have your cake and retain flexibility, too.


For more information:
John Rice, Blueprint Automation, 804-520-5400, john.rice@blueprintautomation.com
David Dixon, Burns & McDonnell, 630-272-1677, ddixon@burnsmcd.com
John Gunst, POWER Engineers Inc., 208-288-6100, jgunst@powereng.com
Mike Wagner, Rockwell Automation, 414-382-2000, mwagner@ra.rockwell.com
Kevin Henretta, SensiBlend, 847-556-9700, kevin.henretta@sensiblend.com

Best of both worlds

Add flexibility and waste reduction to the list of motivations for beverage processors to switch from batch to continuous manufacturing. Additional help in achieving these objectives is coming from the pharmaceutical industry, where batch processing and mass-flow metering are giving way to inline mixing and instantaneous adjustments from a feedback loop.

Inline blending has been available for years, though convincing manufacturers to scrap their syrup room tanks and invest in continuous technology for soft drinks is a hard sell. But carbonated beverages are mature products, and today’s beverage growth comes from sports drinks, flavored waters and other noncarbonated thirst quenchers. As the complexity and raw material costs for these new-age beverages increase, manufacturers are taking notice of the path trod by biopharmaceutical companies and considering investments in continuous, inline mixing.

A new supplier of such systems is SensiBlend, a suburban Chicago firm licensed to sell a liquid blending system outside of the pharmaceutical industry. The technology was developed by TechniKrom, a fabricator of chromatography-based filtration and purification systems. Early this year, SensiBlend began marketing the technology to beverage producers. Instead of simply metering in ingredients and relying on downstream quality-assurance testing, Sensi-Blend’s system relies on process analytical technology (PAT) to instantly analyze inputs from sensors measuring pH, UV and other variables to adjust ratios before releasing fluid flow, according to Kevin Henretta, chief engineer. “You program the system with a detailed chemical analysis of what constitutes a golden batch,” he explains, and PAT ensures these set points are met. “If you’re below set points, PAT speeds up the pump, but if it isn’t in compliance after a minute, it stops the pump,” Henretta adds.

With more products straddling the line between foods and drugs, and the need for beverage companies to produce shorter runs of more product variations, Henretta and his colleagues see new opportunities for continuous blending.

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