BAKING IS BACK: HOW THE FAD IS SPARKING A ROBOT RETHINK
Last year, nine of the top ten most-seen TV shows were episodes of Bake Off, with demands for specific ingredients and products featured, sparking a sales bonanza after each broadcast. Pacepacker reports on how this trend is compelling retailers to rethink store layouts, how they group products together for consumer convenience and how swiftly they react to the scramble for the latest ‘must have’ ingredient or kitchen gadget.
As a result of these developments, there’s been a surge of interest among confectionery and baking suppliers for robotics, observes Paul Wilkinson, Pacepacker’s Commercial & Information Systems Manager at Pacepacker Services. “Shows like MasterChef, Bake Off and celebrity cookery programmes are influencing people to source more exotic ingredients from scratch and whip up a menu showstopper. For example, consumers are increasingly being inspired to make their own traditional Christmas puddings, Easter Simnel cake and hot cross buns.”
In an effort to reduce food waste, almost half the nation is now more inclined to shop for recipe ingredients when they need them. And with emerging markets like dinner subscription services really taking hold, suppliers are exploring pick and place and packing solutions to ensure consumers have access to the freshest, most on-trend ingredients.
However, as with any trend, there remains a concern among manufacturers that today’s advanced system could become tomorrow’s expensive mistake as the food industry continues to evolve. Guiding wary automation first-timers, Pacepacker provides some helpful pointers to help minimise the future risk when adopting automation.
Consumers lead the way
Automation isn’t just about keeping up with the latest fad, but also anticipating what will emerge next. If we’ve learned one thing, it’s that consumer behaviour leads the way. Right now, it seems the population is hungry for help in the kitchen. Thankfully, automation systems today flex to these changing needs and can easily be reprogrammed to perform a different task.
Paul comments: “The grocery sector is having to be even more psychologically innovative, and this includes overhauling the layouts of aisles and grouping products together, such as all of the components for holiday fruit cakes, chocolate brownies or gingerbread houses. To cater to this trend and help ensure even the smaller stores have what people need, retailers are increasingly asking suppliers to prepare mixed trays and cases.”
Reacting to this evolution, Pacepacker created its award-winning Mixed Tray Loader – the first known invention of its kind to automate product swapping. It enables companies to pack an array of products into a tray or delivery box.
Companies like ‘Bakedin’ – which has hundreds of retail stockists and club subscribers – are enjoying considerable success, delivering monthly baking kits with all the dry ingredients and a recipe direct to customers. “For food producers supplying this booming market, products need to be of the highest quality and shipped fast. Automation is a key tool for picking, packing and delivering orders within tight timeframes,” says Paul.
Trend today … gone tomorrow
Trends are trends. While some stick, others don’t and then there are some classics that rarely go out of style. Traditional grains, such as spelt, and plant based ingredients like nuts, seeds and botanicals are making a come back. With them being aligned to health and wellness, these baking ingredients looks set to grow further in popularity in 2017.
Given the speed in which tastes and shopping habits change, agnostic equipment buyers need assurance that the automation solution specified can be adapted. “Most robotic systems can store as standard a range of different programs for different applications – 25 to 50 is typical – and these will cater for the foreseeable needs of most users,” highlights Paul.
Major reprogramming is possible if additional applications arise beyond the scope of the existing programs. “It’s perfectly feasible for properly trained operatives to carry out reprogramming themselves, although for more complex applications it may be easier to call in the supplier, who deals with robotics programs on a day-to-day basis,” says Paul.
Automated case loading a piece of cake
Whether you’ve commissioned a Cartesian system, Delta robot or robotic arm, the handling capability of a robotic system ultimately depends on its tooling, or end effector. Multitasking end effectors are also more commonplace today. In 2015, Pacepacker developed an innovative shingle tray loader with an end effector that can handle any type of fresh and ambient form, fill and seal packs, including packs of flour.
At times, vision systems can be extremely helpful, especially when it’s difficult to pre-orientate the product or when products are arriving at a pick and place station at very high rates that require multiple robots to cooperate, for example chocolates and bakery items going into trays. Similarly, irregular shaped products, such as nuts packed in pillow bags or frozen berries, might need the support of vision systems to detect the variations in height to ensure the robot retrieves and handles them gently, reducing the risk of product damage.
Given how fast moving today’s food business is, when choosing a system, a good rule of thumb is to specify a contingency of 10 to 20% in terms of payload or speed. “We always try to build in something extra in reserve,” adds Paul. “With appropriate servicing and support, an automated packing or pick and place system should run reliably for many years. We have robotic systems that remain in full production 15 years on with no reports of any issues,” claims Paul.
Whatever food trends are on the scene or about to emerge, the robot revolution looks set to stay. “Today’s generation of automated pick and pack systems are flexible enough to adapt to changing consumers patterns and preferences, which for any food supplier is a mandate for success,” concludes Paul.
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