Icy, sweet treats case-packed at 300 cups/min.
With such a range of product types, distributed nationwide to supermarkets and foodservice operations, J&J needs a lot of square footage for manufacturing. The company operates 16 plants across the country, most of which are bakeries. Two are dedicated to frozen dessert production. One of them, J&J Snack Foods' Mia Products division in Moosic, PA, recently became the proud owner of a robotic case packer from Flexicell, a Pearson Packaging Systems company.
Producing 400 million servings of frozen snacks a year, the Mia plant spans 58,000 sq ft and operates eight production lines: one for frozen juice bars, two for Italian ice in tubes, and five for Italian ice/sherbet cups. Before J&J installed the automated system to case-pack its cup products, the process was labor-intensive and manual.
Explains Jason Pniewski, Automation Technology Manager for J&J, "Cups would come out of a blast freezer around 260 cups per minute. Operators would pick several cups off a conveyor line and place them into a corrugated container for our foodservice customers. One challenge was the temperature of the product: grabbing cups that are zero degrees Fahrenheit, even with cotton gloves, can make your hands pretty cold, and packers got fatigued with repetitive motion throughout their shift."
Another challenge-one that many packaging operations currently face-was the tight labor pool, Pniewski adds. "In our region, several manufacturers and distribution centers all compete for the same laborers," he says.
While J&J was interested in automating the process, it was a bit gun shy. In 2004, it had installed a larger robotic packing system from another vendor that didn't perform as expected. According to Pniewski, it took many years and a few upgrades to get the system to perform properly. For this new project, J&J was looking for a system that could keep up with its existing line speed, with additional capacity that would allow it to make up for machine stoppages, easy operation, and a compact footprint, as space was very tight. "Flexicell came through with a unique design that is both user-friendly and compact," Pniewski relates.
The turnkey solution from Flexicell, commissioned in April 2017, includes infeed conveyors, a sortation belt with cup handling, a case erector, and a pick-and-place robot. The system came preprogrammed from Flexicell's shop floor, "so there was very little on-site debugging," Pniewski says.
Just one size cup, 4 oz, is being packed on the line, which handles two case configurations-three layers of 24 cups and four layers of 24 cups-for foodservice customers. During operation of the line, filled cups are conveyed from the blast freezer single file to a sortation table that uses puffs of air to segregate the frozen products into four equal lanes. The system then presents 24 cups at a time to the robot for picking and placing into a shipping case. The system operates at speeds to 300 cups/min.
The robot is a Fanuc LR Mate 200iD, a six-axis mini robot having the approximate size and reach of a human arm. Flexicell designed the robot's custom end-of-arm tool, which uses vacuum to easily pick and place the lightweight treat cups.
With the installation of the Flexicell robotic case packer, J&J's faith in robots has been restored. "The system keeps up with and exceeds our original hand-pack configuration while freeing up labor for our other production lines," Pniewski says. "Since the installation of this packing system, this line is our most cost-effective."
Read Part II of Packaging World's Robotics & Automation Special Report, "Robots prove their mettle."
Byline: Anne Marie Mohan Senior Editor, Packaging World