Like other food manufacturers experiencing steady growth, JTM Food Group of Harrison, OH, has found automation to be a sure answer to coping with that growth.
Its latest investment is in case packing, where it has shifted from a semi-automated approach that, according to Co-owner and Vice President of Operations Joe Maas, was a “rate limiter.” Now operating smoothly is a three-machine solution from Delkor Systems that is completely automated, from case erection to robotic case loading to case closing.
“We do eight-count cases of three-lb bags, six-count cases of four-lb bags, or four-count cases of five-lb bags,” says Maas. “And we handle them all at a pretty steady rate of 68 cases/min.”
The bags he refers to hold pumpable meat sauce products like chili, taco filling, or spaghetti sauce with meat. These cooked products are filled on a pair of vertical form/fill/seal machines, which is followed by chilling and then conveyance to the Delkor systems. Case packing previously was done manually, while case erecting and case closing was done automatically.
“We’re no longer constrained by how quickly an operator can load bags into a case,” says Maas. Also improved, he adds, is product appearance when it reaches the foodservice institutions—schools, hospitals, correctional institutions—who are JTM’s customers. “The operators loading the cases in the past were always rushed, so inevitably some of the bags wouldn’t be placed nice and flat the way we want them to be. Keep in mind that the cases go directly into a blast freezer once they’re sealed, so whatever orientation the bags are in when they go into the cases is the orientation in which they are frozen solid. So what we used to experience on occasion was a less-than-perfect presentation once the case was opened, something we’re happy to say is now a thing of the past.”
The new case packing system occupies a U-shaped footprint where the dual-robot case-loading machine is at the bottom and case-erecting and case-closing machines are the two arms of the U. The case erector is a Trayfecta S-Series machine, which can be quickly changed to whichever of the three cases are in production. When it’s time for a changeover and the operator pulls up the desired size on the HMI screen, instructions are provided on what needs to be done and in what sequence. Using no tools, the operator changes the magazine that holds the corrugated blanks, the shuttle that pushes the flat blanks into the forming head, the forming head, and the forming cavity. The operator also has to check off the completion of each task on the HMI.
Erected cases exit at a right angle and head in the direction of the two infeed conveyors leading into the robotic case packer. A photoeye detects which of the two conveyor lanes needs cases and sends the information to the case packer’s controller so that cases get pushed into the first lane or are told to bypass the first lane and move to the second.
Meanwhile, pouches are being produced in a separate operation. Each of the two vf/f/s machines is a dual-lane system, so pouches exit in a four-across configuration on a conveyor leading into a spiral cooler. When they emerge from the cooler at an overhead level, they transfer to a decline conveyor running at a right angle, so now instead of four-across the pouches are single filed, wide edge leading (see Photo A).
As pouches enter the Delkor LSP Series robotic top-load case packer, they pass over a light box above which is a camera that registers the precise location and orientation of each pouch. It then sends this data to the case packer’s controller, which in turn gives the two Fanuc M10 robots all the information they need to find and accurately pick a pouch and put it into a case. One robot feeds one lane while the other feeds the other lane. Changeover on this machine is tool-less, as a combination of simple crank adjustments and precision change parts ensure that the system is back up to full speed in minutes.
The vacuum cup end effectors on the robots were made in-house by Delkor. “In this case, where product viscosities vary considerably and pouch weights range from three to four to five pounds, we had to experiment a little to find the right solution on the picking tool,” says Delkor Sales Manager Scott Musick.
Musick describes the corrugated case as a “harness style” format that is similar to a wraparound case. “We preform it and leave the top two major flaps open,” says Musick. “After it’s loaded we fold the top two major flaps down and then glue the flange on each side.”
Filled cases exit the case packing cell onto a conveyor running at a right angle that takes them to the case sealing system, Delkor’s Capstone F Series machine. Notable for its compact in-line footprint and featuring simple one-minute tool-less changeover, it folds cases closed and uses a Nordson hot-melt adhesive applicator seal them. The finished cases then make their way to an incline conveyor that takes them to an overhead conveyor leading to a remote palletizer.
“I’d looked into this kind of automation more than once in the past, but just never elected to go through with it,” says Maas. “But then at PACK EXPO when I saw that Delkor could provide case erector, case packer, and case closer in one integrated loop, I knew it was time.”
He adds that his PACK EXPO International 2016 shopping list includes a case coding system to replace the print-and-apply labeling system he currently uses.