WAREHOUSE BAGGING – TO AUTOMATE OR NOT TO AUTOMATE?
Food wholesalers distribute vast quantities of fresh goods to stores with frequent deliveries to ensure product quality. As one of the industry’s most labour intensive operations with a high staff turnover, many wholesalers are jumping on the automation bandwagon. Discover why.
Due to the high volume and range of products wholesalers’ process on a daily basis, a conservative approach to automation is required to ensure the equipment can deal with the bulk handling and variety of pack configurations, in addition to improving throughput and efficiency within the fast paced environment.
For many wholesalers, one of the highest margin activities is buying bulk sacks of anything from confectionery products to pulses, ﬂour and breakfast cereal, and repacking them into smaller bags for resale to retail customers. Although repacking can be carried out manually, larger volumes of wholesalers are opting to automate the process, as this reduces reliance on manual labour, minimises the health and safety risk, resulting in consistent product presentation and increased throughput.
However, efficiencies gained through automation may be cancelled out if product is wasted – either due to spillages or contamination. It’s not uncommon to incur waste through this activity, notes Paul Wilkinson, Commercial & Information Systems Manager at Pacepacker. On many systems installed at wholesale operations, bags are ﬁlled whilst on a sack clamp, then dropped onto a moving conveyor and transported to a stitcher. During this process, the mouth of the bag is wide open and often unsupported. This can result in sacks falling over and spilling. What’s more, rogue items, from a nut or bolt to an insect, could easily fall into the bag and contaminate the product.
For cash & carry operator Bestway, which repacks one tonne bags of rice into smaller paper sacks, Pacepacker’s Total Bag Control (TBC) system addressed these issues. The TBC sealing system installed incorporates motorised grip arms which move around the bag the moment it is released from the clamp, with the arms closing on the top of the bag, holding it in its formed state. The bag is then continually clamped shut as it is transported to the sealing device – usually either a stitcher or heat sealer – so at no point can anything miscellaneous drop into the sack. And because the sack is supported throughout the closing process, there’s no risk of it toppling over and the contents spilling out.
While a manufacturer may use one particular type of bag/case design for packing their product, wholesalers can handle countless types, from paper, plastic, woven polypropylene, hessian and even nets on a daily basis and, consequently, this issue needs to be addressed during automation. Due to the motorised grip arms of the sealer installed within Bestway, who frequently run fabric and paper sacks on the line, the system has can handle a variety of different types and presents sacks to the sealer with precision, accurately sealing even the most difficult-to-handle sacks to create consistently premium looking packs.
For hessian and jute bags, which are notoriously difficult to handle on an automated system, yet popular among wholesalers, one solution is to incorporate equipment which can be manoeuvred out of the way to allow for human intervention. In the case of Bestway, a portable sack placer was integrated into the line to allow for bag placing to be carried out manually when required.
A diverse range of bag types can cause other complications during the automation process, for instance with paper bags the tops need to be trimmed and taped before stitching. Again, mobility is key and the trimmer and over-taper needs to be built-in to be moved out of the way when packing fabric bags. A sealing system that can both re-form the gussets of paper bags and stretch the tops of fabric bags is also essential.
From an assortment of material, to the often large span of sizes, any specified system needs to be capable of dealing with bulk solids handling and size changeover in order to minimise production downtime. Handling bulky irregular shaped products in sacks is also cause for concern during the palletising process – especially where, in some cases, manual labourers are required to stack pallets with over 40-25kg bags onto a pallet. Hand-stacking is not easy and can result in untidy and unstable pallets as well as heightened health and safety risks. Robotic palletising solutions address this issue ensuring consistent uniform and neat stacking, plus overcoming one of the most arduous, labour intensive tasks in wholesale environments.
While there is no doubt that automation and robotics offers both the flexibility to meet the diversity of wholesaler needs and reliability, the cost implications when introducing automation cannot be recovered by increasing prices, and usually requires significant initial investment. In these instances, pre-owned robots can provide wholesales with more economical automated solutions. Pacepacker’s Blu-Robot systems incorporate robotic arms that originate primarily from the automotive industry, and are approximately a third of the way through their lifespan. Typically half the cost of a new system, a wholesaler can achieve a far quicker payback with a pre-owned system and still benefit from all the same automation and efficiency benefits a new system offers.
To ensure wholesalers meet tight retail timeframes and to minimise machinery downtime, a good system integrator should offer full remote diagnostics and support. So, if problems do arise, with a quick phone call to the support team, an engineer can connect to the system in question, view the integrated camera to see what’s happening and start diagnosing the issue immediately without having to wait for an engineer to travel to site.
Remote diagnostics are mainly a reactive service, but new developments from high end providers will also have the ability to alert wholesalers of production statistics or impending issues upstream or downstream that may lead to loss of production time. This is particularly beneficial to wholesalers that have multiple lines of automated equipment spread over a large area or several sites.
The opportunity to make your warehouse facility more efficient and profitable by investing in automated systems has never been better. Yet, taking the leap can be daunting. “Make sure you choose the right partner who can engineer a bespoke solution that meets the needs of all your products – in any shape, size of packing material,” cautions Paul.
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