The multi-generational potato farmers of Tasteful Selections began in Nebraska, relocating to Arvin, Calif., to take advantage of the rich farmland and year-round growing season. The journey since has been not only geographical but one of innovation as well. Always searching for business growth opportunities, the company pioneered the category of bite-sized potatoes to offer consumers a simpler and more convenient source of nutritious potatoes.
Tasteful Selections also employs state-of-the-art production technology. To maintain high standards of quality, flavor, freshness, size uniformity, and best practices for sustainability, the company owns the entire planting, growing, harvesting, and packaging process. And when it wanted to expand and optimize its potato production, robotic automation was seen as the key.
“We are constantly planting, harvesting, and picking the freshest product for our customers,” says Nathan Bender, chief operating officer for Tasteful Selections. “We’re growing so fast that without automation, we can’t keep up.”
Fanuc robots have been a big part of Tasteful Selections’ journey, including 11 Fanuc M-410iB palletizing robots and five Fanuc M-3iA delta robots for case packing. “What we’re trying to do is flatten our curve of our costs, so we can provide a great service to our customers and keep our pricing down,” says Ernie Waldo, plant manager for Tasteful Selections. “As we’ve rolled out automation, it has been a real blessing to our employees to bring consistency to the line and bring consistency to our costs.”
Tasteful Selections got its start in robotics with the help of Schneider Packaging Equipment, a Fanuc Authorized Systems Integrator. The potato company liked Schneider’s OptiStak, which creates recipes for the layers of boxes to be stacked on the pallets. Based on Fanuc software, OptiStak quickly optimizes pallet configurations and enables operators to change patterns on the fly.
“They have been turnkey, out of the box, minimal programming that we needed to do on our end, and super, super successful on creating consistencies throughout our plant,” Waldo says.
In just a few years, Tasteful Selections has grown from 100 workers to close to 900. The robotic palletizers have also made a difference in employee accidents and injuries. Previously, workers stacked 50-lb boxes onto pallets up to 92 in. high, but now the robotic palletizers perform that task. “We were able to come up with a very modular, unique design for our palletizers,” says Justin McHenry, vice president of plant operations for Tasteful Selections. “It’s capable of picking up any one of our boxes in this facility, stacking a pallet as high as will fit in the back of any refrigerated truck, and does all that without requiring any tooling change.”
Finding the right robotic gripper
As the company increased the speed of the processing lines, manually packing the bags of potatoes in boxes became an issue. The packing space did not allow for additional line staff. Additionally, the company wanted to minimize the human touch points to ensure the best food safety and quality practices.
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“We want to make sure our potatoes are the safest they can be from farm to fork,” says Lindsey Mebane, food safety manager for Tasteful Selections. “Before we had the robotics, everything was done by hand. For food safety, that is a little bit of a concern because there are more hands touching the product. Granted, they are wearing gloves, but there’s still human contact.”
Robots handling the potatoes, however, was cause for concern as well, since they could potentially cause more bumps and bruises than human handling. Having not only a food-safe but also gentle robotic solution was of utmost importance.
Tasteful Selections approached Soft Robotics—which makes advanced technologies that enable automation of a wide variety of products—to find a robotic gripper that could reliably grab a shifting bag of potatoes while easing the positioning tolerance requirements of the robot and the machine vision imaging system guiding it. The solution was Soft Robotics’ mGrip soft gripper.
“The end-of-arm tooling for this application needed to be able to handle a lot of variability,” explains Ben Gibson, applications engineering manager of packaging solutions for Soft Robotics. “These are mesh bags of baby potatoes. Depending on how the product settles on the belt, it can end up in lots of different shapes or sizes. We were able to handle all of this with a single end-of-arm tool.”
Plus, the unique gripper material allows the bags to be grabbed without any concern of damaging the product by applying too much force or using a rigid gripping tool. “We chose Soft Robotics because of the softness of the plastic and its integration with the Fanuc robot,” says Emilio Lemus, automation manager for Tasteful Selections. “It speeds up the process a lot, and at the same time, takes care of our product the way we want it.”
The pneumatic actuated tool allows the operators to control the air pressure to either tighten or loosen the grip on the bags of potatoes. It also knows exactly the correct number of bags to fill a box as well as where to place them in the box.
“It helps with the quality—hands aren’t being harsh on them—and it helps with the overall efficiency because we are sending what we are supposed to be sending out, so it eliminates a lot of human error,” Mebane says.
Innovation gets results
As a result of the mGrip-enabled robotic work cell, Tasteful Selections was able to exceed 45 bags per minute and increase its packing line’s overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) by 15%, achieving 100% return on investment (ROI) within nine months.
Adding robotics also enabled the company to achieve another advantage in 2020—a way to easily social distance employees on the production line. “Because of the robotics, we had less people on the line, so that really helped with the social distancing,” Mebane says. “It allows the people to be farther apart because the person putting the bags in boxes isn’t standing right next to the person putting boxes on the pallet.”
With the investment in automation, Tasteful Selections has been able to grow very quickly as well as maintain the quality of its small potatoes for customers. And it’s all been done at an attractive price point.
“If we don’t innovate, we’re not going to be competitive. Our prices will go up,” McHenry says. “We haven’t taken a price increase in 10 years on our product. We’re able to maintain that through automation.”