A gripping story of adding value to robot capabilities

by | Apr 11, 2023 | News

Modern robots are fascinating to watch, and their capabilities improve on an almost daily basis. But without the clever stuff at the end of the arm, they are just that… arms. David Jahn explains that to truly unlock the massive potential behind robots, you need to make sure that your end effectors really are up to the job.

About David Jahn

Focused on serving the fresh-produce sector, David Jahn, co-owner of Brillopak with business partner Peter Newman, is passionate about assisting packhouses to address labour shortages, profitability and operational efficiency.

Part entrepreneur, part innovator, part director, David has a good grasp of how economic and political decisions impact business and society globally, particularly in the logistics, manufacturing and packing sectors.

Building systems for a diverse client base – including leading UK supermarkets, SME food factories, and contract packers – David gets that no single approach to automation is right for every business or budget. He provides a fresh perspective and insight, applying his previous experience gained from launching a business, being a technology company Board Director and working in risk-management consultancy.

According to anthropologists, it was the evolution of opposable thumbs that set our distant ancestors apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, and you can understand why. The ability to grip things transformed dexterity and helped to give us an essential leg up in the food chain.

Over time, our hands have evolved into incredibly agile bodily accessories that are capable of myriad tasks, which is why, unsurprisingly, that engineers have attempted to emulate these capabilities and then deploy them in automated operations.

Dexterity from understanding

But to mimic the dexterity of a human hand, you need have deep understanding, not just of the actual hand or end effector and its capabilities (and, indeed, its limits), but also the motion envelope and profile of the arm it is attached to and the physics and dynamics of what you’re going to be gripping. This is where it starts to get interesting.

Only by studying all three can you ever hope to come close to emulating humans. But the good news is, once you’ve achieved this, you can then leverage all the advantages of automation for what have traditionally been manual or semi-manual processes, such as end-of-line packaging.

Low-tech product, high-tech solution

Believe it or not, the fresh produce market brings out the best in robotic technology. Just because the end product is not high-tech, it doesn’t mean that the amount of effort that went into developing its packaging routines was simple – far from it. Indeed, I would argue that some of the lines that we develop are actually more high-tech than those used in the pharmaceutical industry.

Why? Fresh fruit and vegetable packaging presents some of the most diverse challenges to automation, so much so that we have seen technology from many competing companies fail, even after significant post-installation remedial action.

It’s the random nature of the individual items and the physics of the bagged and punnet-packed products that present the issues. Some work with vacuum end effectors, others will need fingers – even though they may appear to be similar products. Some will require exacting motion profiles and precision acceleration/deceleration curves. And knowing how and why to make these decisions and what to use is a major part of the process. One that can only come from significant domain expertise.

Patented technology

We’ve been researching, making, testing, deconstructing, rebuilding and commercialising this end-effector technology for nearly 25 years – and we are still learning! It really is an art, and in our case has led to the development and patenting of a pneumatic vacuum head that is actually smaller than most of the products it picks, giving it the flexibility and range of motion to get inside creates, while still supporting the product.

Interestingly, our extensive experience in the fresh produce sector, where vegetables change shape and size on an almost daily basis, has meant that we can pack most products from most sectors with relative ease. 

This experience means we can set up feasibility studies for new customers or new products really quickly. We’ve packaged countless items into so many packaging styles that our engineers’ ability to instantly appraise an application is becoming innate.

We’re great believers in the holistic approach to case-packing automation, an ethos that looks at every facet of the application, not just now but into the future too, so a phased approach can be deployed to make automation investment less risky and more palatable form a Capex perspective. The same holistic approach needs to be taken for end effector design too.

Plastic replacement

Consistency is the key here. You need an automated end-of-line packaging solution that can pick consistently, place accurately across multiple SKUs and do so reliably and at speed. This takes real skill. Now imagine you have to do all this without plastic packaging, which supports a superb vacuum. Other companies will already be struggling. Not us, we’ve got it well in hand and can actually do both with our latest TrayPAKer machine.

Our machines and approach to automation installation have revolutionised operations at major produce distribution locations around the UK. But you don’t have to take our word for, just look at the case studies.

If we’ve piqued your interest, why not give us a call. We can set up trials and take you through a step-by-step approach before any type of commitment. Imagine what we could achieve together. Contact us HERE.