Revamping Warehouses with Robotics

Next-generation robotics are driving safety and efficiency.

“They introduce a level of safety and consistency in terms of applying automation to a repetitive task,” says Jeff Hedges, president of Moorestown, New Jersey-based OPEX Material Handling.

Warehouse workers no longer have to handle strenuous and repetitive tasks that can cause physical injuries and can instead perform more value-added tasks.


Customer testimonies

Baltimore, Maryland-based Pompeian Inc, an olive oil manufacturer, was looking to reduce downtime in their olive oil facility while simultaneously boosting production.

Previously, their cases of olive oil and goods were manually wrapped and stacked onto pallets. The labor intensive process drove up labor costs. According to Kevin Lydon, vice president of operations at Pompeian, in a Richmond News article: “Four individuals used to manually stack between 3,500 and 4,000 cases each ten-hour day on pallets.”

To meet their target objectives, Pompeian decided to deploy Ashland, Virginia-based Flexicell robotic palletizing equipment to properly manage shipping cases.

“We desired repeatability and uptime performance, flexibility, the ability to handle ever-changing pallet patterns and new packaging structures and ease of use, as this was our first use of robotics,” said Lydon in a Packing Digest news article. “We couldn’t afford a long learning curve or any extra downtime.”

The robotics system took approximately six months to be designed, tested and implemented in Pompeian’s facility. Flexicell’s robotics equipment was able to handle Pompeian’s units packed at speeds from 9 to 27 cases per minute.

“We couldn’t have asked for a better startup,” said Lydon, in an online testimonial. “We’re already seeing a payback. Flexicell did a fantastic job. We would only use Flexicell for our future projects.”

Chicago, Illinois-based Hillshire Brands (formerly Sara Lee), a meat-centric food solutions company, choose FANUC robotics solutions to increase their efficiency.

During a webinar entitled “How to Apply Robotics in High-Speed Food Handling Applications” Jonathan Riechert, an associate at Hillshire Brands, discussed their biggest challenges to implementing robotics equipment. One challenge was how robotics equipment respond to change versus humans.

“Humans and robots are different—they have different responses to change,” said Riechert in the webinar. “Humans are adaptable and intuitive and obviously the robots are not. One of the things that we discovered in implementing automation was that humans can overcome deficiencies in designing their line and if those deficiencies still exist when you go to automate, it’ll become very obvious because the robots are not able to adapt.”

Additionally, Hillshire admitted to difficulties when explaining the robotics equipment initiatives to nontechnical employees.

“One of the ways that we found to overcome this was to show them the right way to operate the cell with the robotics,” explained Riechert. “Show them various ways it can go wrong to kind of explain why we did what we did with the automation cell, and that way the people on the floor can understand the impact of performance and running the line various ways.”


What to expect for 2013

The price of robotics systems is becoming more within companies’ financial reach in part because computer technology is increasingly more affordable. According to FANUC’s Motley, the emergence of system integrators is a big contributor that makes robotics equipment more affordable.

“The food industry should be putting more of these systems in place to control their costs,” says Stuart Cooper, VP of sales for Flexicell. “It is a very cost effective piece of machinery—it offers them that opportunity for efficiency, performance, decent pricing and very good return on investment.”

Additionally, one of the latest developments for 2013 is the introduction of OPEX’s Perfect Pick solution. OPEX’s Perfect Pick made its debut during ProMat in January.

“One of the reasons that we’re entering the market with Perfect Pick is because this really takes the shuttle technology and applies a level of intelligence to it,” says OPEX’s Hedges. “We basically have a shuttle robot that is now climbing walls.”

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