23rd Oct 2015 | By

Winner of the ‘Most Innovative Processing/Packaging Machine’ title in the PPMA Group Industry Awards 2015, Pacepacker answered retailer calls for space-saving mixed product trays creating the offline portable pick and place Mixed Tray Loader (MTL).

Believed to be the first of its kind in the UK, the first system was custom-built for a leading manufacturer of chilled dips, spreads and deli fillings in 2014. Since the first installation, this customer reports that requests by retailers for mixed product trays has quadrupled, and Pacepacker recently upgraded their system, doubling the product swap capacity to 60 pots per minute.

Utilising a simple Cartesian pick-and-place arrangement, incorporating Festo mechatronics, the automated MTL sits over twin lanes of filled trays. The picking heads remove one line of product from the first tray, placing it into the second, reversing the process to swap items.

Image 1 -Mixed Tray Loader

Demand for mixed trays by the first customer to install the MTL quadrupled in the 12 months

Ideal for mixed trays of pots, packs, jars, punnets etc. the MTL can also help manage stock control and reduce the risk of stock going out of date, effecting waste and profits.

Commenting on what’s driving this emerging trend, Pacepacker’s Commercial & Information Systems Manager Paul Wilkinson says: “By stocking mixed trays of product, a larger supermarket can hold a wider range of product types, flavours and variants. Equally, a smaller inner-city store, which may previously have had to drop lines to make way for other products, can continue to offer a good variety.”

Neil Farmer, independent consultant and spokesperson for the packaging sector, comments: “The whole food and grocery retail sector is a battlefield. To achieve higher shelf spacing is the challenge facing all producers. This is particularly so in metro, convenience and local stores where space is even more limited. The use of mixed tray systems therefore has great merit, allowing more variety, choice and range of products. In store it’s that “blink of an eye moment”, the 7 seconds when the consumer looks at the shelf and makes a purchasing decision. With an assorted range of products there’s a greater chance of seeing something that will catch the eye, leading to a purchase. The growth in brand extensions, personalisation and customisation of products is one of the most important trends in the retail sector. Consumers are used to having a wide choice of branded product options and mixed product trays can go a long way to facilitating this.”

In an attempt to combat shopper fatigue, another trend grocers are latching onto is presenting ingredients together. Many have adjusted their store layouts by logically grouping more recipe products together, such as tinned tomatoes with pasta, cake making ingredients and meal deals such as meat, stir fry vegetables, noodles and sauces. Again, the MTL caters to these simple initiatives that make the shopping experience more convenient.

The original idea for the MTL must be attributed to Pacepacker’s engineers, who upon visiting the dip manufacturer’s Gwent site observed up to five people performing the manual ‘product swap’ operation. They suggested automating the operation. Because most retail orders for mixed product trays are placed retrospectively once products are processed, packed and in chilled storage, an offline system was proposed. Through labour savings alone*, the initial MTL system paid for itself in less than six months.

Image 2 Mixed Tray Loader

The picking heads remove one line of product from the first tray, placing it into the second, reversing the process to swap items

As a standalone operation, the MTL is compact – measuring 1.2 metres in length and 1 metre wide. A pair of in-feed conveyors is located to one side. This means it can easily be relocated to the warehouse area or in the production area; whichever makes more sense from a space and product-flow perspective.

Although developed using a Cartesian technology, if handling a larger number of product configurations the MTL can just as easily be designed with delta or articulated arm robots or be configured to other formats, including flexible packaging. The system can also be used for new product trials, slower-moving lines, seasonal and limited editions.

A large part of our approach at Pacepacker is to keep tabs on retail trends, and when visiting customers we also examine the overall operational efficiency and where automation can solve a particular challenge or overcome a production bottleneck,” Paul explains. “This newest ‘product swap’ development is a classic example of what can be accomplished when we look at the wider automation picture.”

* Based on average annual wage for a food manufacturing operative and up to five people per shift swapping products manually.

For more information, please contact:

Paul Wilkinson, Business Development Manager
T:+44 (0)1371 811544
F:+44 (0)1371 811621