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Pet food processor gets fresh automation make-over

Changing the industry through positive innovation that’s good for pets as well as the planet is the aim of Freshpet, a Pennsylvania-based processor of fresh, all-natural food for pets. The company was founded in 2007, and today its premium, refrigerated pet foods are sold through 16,000 fridges in retail stores across North America.

With brands including Freshpet Select, Vital and Nature’s Fresh, the processor’s healthy cat and dog foods are produced in bags, chubs and stand-up resealable pouches in 1-, 1 ½-, 2-, 5- and 6-pound sizes.

To keep up with growing demand, Freshpet renovated a facility in Bethlehem, bringing a combination of new and existing equipment to the plant. A few years a later, further expansion was required for two new high-capacity lines. 

The pet food products are hot filled, then sent through a serpentine chiller. After chilling, the chubs are discharged to a conveyor and fed to the JLS Osprey Chub Loader. Freshpet had a case erector, hand-pack station and case sealer built and controlled together, but it wanted to eliminate the labor of putting chubs into boxes while still using its existing case erector and sealer. 

Freshpet Engineering Manager Sam Torres was aware of robotic flex picking equipment for many years due to attending PACK EXPO shows. He researched other robotic solutions, but they would not fit the plant’s tight footprint. Through business contacts, he learned about JLS technology.

JLS integrated its single-head Osprey Chub Loader into Freshpet’s design in a very tight footprint by breaking apart the case erector and sealer with the case packer, and putting its equipment in between.  

Soon after the initial installation, Freshpet needed to add a new high-speed bagger line and a new high-speed chub line. With the success of the first system and higher speed requirements, Freshpet knew it had to automate the new lines. JLS then installed its dual-head Osprey case packers with vision systems (one for case packing chubs, the other for case packing bags). 

The outcome has been more than beneficial. “It’s cruising,” says Torres of the dual-head robot which runs at 110 per minute, but is capable of much higher speeds. “The machine is seamlessly going back and forth picking up chubs and dropping them in the boxes.”

Today, the plant has three lines: a single-head JLS Osprey Chub Loader, a dual-head JLS Osprey Chub Loader that is capable of handling 220 chubs per minute and a bagged product dual-head JLS Osprey case packer. 

Torres says line changeovers have been fantastic. “We have three different tools for our five sizes of packages. It literally takes two minutes,” he says. As a result of this automation upgrade, Freshpet’s SQF-approved facility has reduced headcount and improved throughput and safety on all of its packaging lines.