Equipment makers talk about robotics, software, integration of conveyors and palletizers, and how demands from retailers are changing logistics.

Meet the Panel

Paul Calabretta, Dairy Conveyor and DCC Automation-Western Division, Huntington Beach, Calif.
William Caudill, Lantech, Louisville, Ky.
Kendal Malstrom, IPM–Integrated Packaging Machinery (affiliated with AMF Automation), Comstock Park, Mich.
Pierre Simon, Sidel Inc., Norcross, Ga. (a division of Tetra Laval, Switzerland)
David Stinson, Intelligrated Inc., Mason, Ohio
Steven Winning, American Conveyor, Ridgewood, N.Y.
Laura Worker, Westfalia Technologies Inc., York, Pa.
Phil Wright, JMP Robotics, Clarkston, Mich., (division of JMP Engineering Ltd., New Zealand)

Four Ps - product, packaging, pallets and people - affect the operations and the bottom line in a processing facility. Equipment and software create efficiencies on the processing floor and in warehouses. Innovations in conveyors (especially stainless steel) and palletizers offer flexibility for various lines, package sizes and warehousing needs. New robotic technology works in a cost-effective manner (in even the coldest of environments). Improvements in safety and ergonomics result in safer workplaces.

We asked executives from eight equipment companies to share their insights about what is happening inside processors’ plants.

Q: What factors affect dairy processor demand for conveyor and palletizer upgrades and additions?

Calabretta: Demand for conveyor and palletizer upgrades is presently fueled by large retailers such as Wal-Mart requiring milk delivery on pallets, foodservice providers requesting delivery in one-way corrugated shippers and dairy plant consolidations. We are seeing six-figure repair jobs in plants where maintenance has (previously) been deferred or capital cut off.

Malstrom: The obvious ones for us have been caseless palletizing and versatility required for multiple lines to a single robot station. Caseless palletizing for a green initiative is being required for large supermarket chains. Dairy operations tend to be doing a lot of co-packing, so extreme versatility has become the standard.

Winning: What has caught our attention is the demand driven by workplace safety and ergonomic issues.  Producers want to provide for an environment that is worker friendly and, as a result, this creates higher worker productivity and reduced risk of injury.

Stinson: Packaging is being redesigned to reduce costs, which creates a demand for downstream changes in conveying and palletizing equipment. The packaging changes are driving the need for a true zero-pressure accumulation conveyor to prevent product damage.

Wright: Flexibility is needed to control all pallet stack characteristics (height, pattern and consistency) and the ability to handle multiple SKUs. The system size has to be able to fit in a confined space.

Worker: I see the use of plastic pallets and the higher throughput speeds being demanded from warehousing systems. As we design and build automated warehousing systems, our equipment and software is developed to meet these higher throughput needs.

Simon: Productivity optimization is the name of the game.

Q: What can conveyor and palletizer equipment do to improve dairy processing, materials handling and distribution efficiency?

Malstrom: Caseless palletizing enables dairies not to have return trucks. One-way distribution!

Stinson: Often, palletizing at the dairy processor takes place in an environment that is not ideal for human labor. Freezers and cold rooms are particularly inhospitable places to work. Robotic technology for cold room and freezer environments has opened up a cost-effective means of palletization.    

Worker: Optimizing conveyor layouts and minimizing the footprint of palletizing systems to reduce floor space along with increasing throughput rates all contribute to the efficiency of dairy cooler operations. Also, when used in conjunction with warehouse management software, the routing of product can be optimized for order selection and truck loading. Robotic palletizing also enables mixed SKU palletizing to make store ready pallets with significant time and labor savings.

Calabretta: Conveyor and palletizing equipment can reduce labor and increase dairy processing efficiency by providing automation to a line which was previously staffed by manual labor, automating the transfer or accumulation of product to other lines, or by the replacement of aging, slower equipment.

Caudill: Any time you are able to automate a process and redeploy valuable resources, you become more efficient, and being more efficient leads to more profit.

Simon: [The equipment] can contribute directly in longer filling available run time, by properly sized and reliable end-of-line equipment. End-of-line improvements provide an optimized bridge between the filling line and warehouse/logistics.

Q: Discuss the technological advances to conveyor and palletizing equipment.

Stinson: Robotics in the dairy industry has become more common. Delicate graphic-intensive packages, tight space requirements, cold environments and the flexibility in layout of robotic palletizing systems has made the robot a solid choice for many dairy palletizing applications.

Wright: Robots’ speeds and gripper technology has drastically improved over the past few years. One of today’s palletizing robots can meet the rate of two older machines. 

Calabretta: Technological advances in conveying include increased automation of conveyor lines through the use of programmable logic controllers and variable-frequency drives, true wash down, zero-pressure full box conveyor systems and conveyor chain innovations which reduce the need for traditional mechanical equipment for box turning and merging.

Malstrom: Affordable servo-technology continues to enable us to meet ever-changing packaging requirements. Years ago it was too cost prohibitive to use this technology.  Today it is the standard.

Worker: Software improvements result in significant labor savings from fewer workers and less travel time within the facility to get the items needed for an order.

Simon: Development of high-speed, low-level palletizers with palletizing flexibility in terms of layout and layer preparation directly through the operator panel.

Q: How does facility type (for example, fluid or frozen desserts) factor into conveyor and palletizer equipment needs?

Calabretta: Conventional non-aseptic fluid milk plants still package much of their product into returnable plastic cases, which typically require extensive case handling equipment such as case un-stackers, case washers, case stackers and an empty, full case and full stack conveyor. This type of conveyor is typically a two-strand chain type conveyor and can be overhead, on-floor or in-floor.

Palletizing for these plants is usually accommodated by a palletizer which accumulates full stacks of plastic crates and pushes them onto a staged pallet.

Frozen dessert and ice cream manufacturing plants typically call for extensive corrugated box handling equipment such as box formers, carton formers, box and carton sealers and a conveyor to transport those packages. This type of conveyor is usually a flat tabletop type with stainless steel frame or a powered roller conveyor.

Malstrom: For robotic palletizing we use special features for coolers and freezer technology. Special seals and fluids allow robots to work in this environment without heating blankets.  

Stinson: If the palletizing operation can be separated from the wash-down environment, a savings can usually be achieved based upon use of lower-cost materials.  Generally, costs are higher when building the palletizing and conveying equipment from stainless steel.

Wright: Some products, like ice cream, are being palletized directly inside a freezer.  Other products are produced in a clean room environment.

Worker: Fluid is packed in strong plastic dairy cases, whereas cultured products and frozen dessert type products are typically packed in boxes/cases, which are then palletized for storage or shipping.

The conveyors for fluid milk dairy cases are smaller, and case stackers are used.  A stack in the dairy industry is typically six dairy cases high; stack groups can be pushed onto pallets via a dairy case palletizer.

Q: How does your company address facility- and line-specific conveyor and palletizing needs?

Calabretta: We treat each application as essentially “made to order.” We approach each customer with questions that clarify their needs and then begin confirming all existing building and equipment details.

Malstrom: We take a ROI [return on investment] solutions approach. Typically, robotic palletizers are used for versatility and conventional for dedicated lines. Sometimes, even though we manufacture robotic palletizers, we will still recommend and install a conventional palletizer.

Stinson: Layouts, rates, package styles, pallet patterns, and environmental issues are a few of the considerations that drive analysis and solution recommendations. 

Wright: Site visits are essential, and often, more information is learned here than is included in an RFP (request for proposal). When employees all have a “say” in the system configuration and design, they take ownership of the equipment and help ensure a successful start-up.

Worker: We design an automated warehouse to fit the specific inventory and SKU mix needs of a facility.

Q: What would you tell a processor who is considering an investment in new equipment?

Malstrom: Take a solutions approach to your needs and not a budget approach. If the budget is too low for the requirements, this often leads to an installation that doesn’t work. In order to meet a budget, suppliers need to take out content, which leads to processors not getting the system they really need.

Stinson: Work directly with a provider who manufactures both the conveying and palletizing solution, because the systems are interdependent.

Wright: Keep it simple. Often, a system design will become over complicated in an effort to add every possible option for every possible situation. While this may seem like a good idea, it is often the reason why some systems are too difficult to operate and maintain.

Caudill: Do not automate just for your capacity today and box yourself in. Plan for growth and new business as you lay out the plan for any automation.

Worker: Consider layout changes, increased throughput, and software flexibility.