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Crate expectations: Scottish veg processor adopts fresh thinking for sprout packing

The UniPAKer cell has been running successfully for over eight months at Drysdales’ facility in Cockburnspath, Berwickshire and is currently programmed to run 30 different patterns without the need for any tool changeovers

Forward-looking vegetable processor Drysdales has become the first UK produce company to automate its sprout crate loading operation, future-proofing against potential labour shortages that could arise from Brexit. The Scottish company’s investment in Brillopak’s award-winning UniPAKer robotic cell has already yielded a return on investment thanks to its ability to consistently load bags of sprouts into crates at speeds in excess of 75 packs per minute with minimal manual intervention.

“No-one else is using a machine like this to pack sprouts into crates; this investment fits with our business philosophy of harnessing innovation in farming and production methods in order to stay at the top of our game and deliver the best quality produce and service to our customers. We haven’t yet placed an order for a second robotic crate packer but if and when we do, it will be with Brillopak,” says Drysdales’ Farming & Facilities Director, Ian McLachlan.

Located in the Scottish Borders, Drysdales has developed from its origins as a farm-based enterprise to a nationwide processor of added-value, locally grown vegetables. The company grows 50,000 tonnes of fresh vegetables – mainly swedes, sprouts and leeks – a year for British supermarkets. It supplies sprouts year round, growing 900 acres – more than any other company in Europe – as well as being the largest peeler and the first company to operate a semi-automated peeling line.

Continuing this spirit of innovation, at the start of 2019, Drysdales embarked on a project to install a new fully automat sprout packing line. The line would comprise a vertical bagging machine, metal detector, checkweigher and crate packing system, all located on a mezzanine floor.

This was to be the first time Drysdales had automated crate packing on its sprout processing lines, a decision driven largely by concerns about future labour supply.

“On all of our lines we were relying on manual labour to pack bags of sprouts into crates. However, with Brexit, we foresee a potential labour issue. The time was right to invest in a machine that could perform this task,” explains Ian.

One of the challenges of automating this operation was the number of possible pack and crate configurations. Sprouts are packed in a variety of bag sizes, from 200g up to 500g, and each retailer has their own crate format requirements.

“We needed the flexibility to accommodate different pack sizes and crate lengths, whole and half crates, landscape and portrait layouts and different volumes - from 10 packs up to 25 packs to a crate,” says Ian.

Brillopak’s UniPAKer robotic cell has already yielded a return on investment thanks to its ability to consistently load bags of sprouts into crates at speeds in excess of 75 packs per minute with minimal manual intervention

Drysdales invited several robotic equipment suppliers to put forward proposals, among them Brillopak, a Kent-based designer and manufacturer of flexible robotic packing and palletising systems.

Brillopak’s solution was the UniPAKer robotic pick and place cell that was originally engineered for packing bags of potatoes and apples into crates. The UniPAKer has been specifically designed to improve productivity and improve pack presentation on shelf. Using a four-arm delta robot on a compact footprint, it will load up to 75 VFFS, tray sealed or flow wrapped packs per minute and is ideal for vegetables, fruits and salad up to 1kg.

“We had never tried using the UniPAKer to handle sprouts before, but we knew that we could do the job. The challenges were the same as with potatoes – how do you pick and place flexible bags containing small, moving spherical products at speed with accuracy?” says David Jahn, director at Brillopak.

Two key elements of the UniPAKer solution address these challenges: the use of vision technology to recognise and orientate the packs and the unique design of Brillopak’s suction end-effector.

Suction heads can accommodate the irregular contours of flow wraps and pillow packs and adjust swiftly to different pack sizes. However, if the vacuum is compromised, there is the risk of bags sagging and dropping onto the packing conveyor, causing line stoppages. Brillopak’s approach to vacuum handling is different to others in that it manufactures its own heads using cups with independent vacuum generators, providing greater control during handling.

“When you are looking to replace labour at the end of a line with robotics, consistency is king, as you have to assume there won’t be anyone there to intervene if the robot stops. Our business is built on designing automation solutions that operate at high speed but with consistency; the key to achieving this is precision control over the product throughout,” says David.

From Drysdales’ point of view, this expertise instilled confidence in Brillopak’s ability to deliver a sound technical solution backed up by honest, specialist advice if its needs were to change in the future.

“Brillopak has many years of experience in vacuum heads, which was important, as controlling the suction on the bags was a key part of this project. This also gave us confidence that if in future, a customer wants to produce, say, a 1kg pack, we can easily change the head,” says Ian.

The UniPAKer cell has been running successfully for over eight months at Drysdales’ facility in Cockburnspath, Berwickshire. The flexible system is unphased by the multiple crate configurations required on this line, and is currently programmed to run 30 different patterns without the need for any tool changeovers. Manual intervention is limited to just one person to take away full crates, replace empty crates and perform quality checks.

“We’ve achieved what we set out to at the start of the project and the system does exactly what Brillopak promised it would do. Throughout the project they have been completely honest and really good and quick at coming up with solutions,” concludes Ian.

Pictured Ian McLachlan, Farming & Facilities Director, Drysdales. The investment fits with the business philosophy of harnessing innovation in farming and production methods in order to stay at the top of our game and deliver the best quality produce and service to our customers.