Manually loading sweetcorn into flow wrappers may become a thing of the past after a factory trial found a new robot can pick and places cobs at speeds of 180 packs per minute.
The Fanuc M-10iA robot, produced by robotics firm Fanuc, is claimed to be the first time sweetcorn cobs have been handled by an automated arm robot, for a task that is traditionally labour intensive, slow and expensive.
It is estimated that, on a line manned by two operators per shift, the robot could pay for itself within a year.
"We were delighted with the outcome of the trial. It is the first time to our knowledge, sweetcorn cobs have been handled by an articulated arm robot, which has the potential to reduce capital outlay compared to delta robots,” said Fanuc regional sales manager, John Rainer.
“Loading sweetcorn into the flow wrapper infeed has always been a labour intensive task in factories, because no automated solution existed.”
In the factory trial, after being manually dehusked, pairs of sweetcorn cobs were picked from a conveyor by the robot and placed into pockets within a flighted belt feeding the flow wrapper.
It is estimated that the robot could be configured to pick up to six cobs simultaneously, and if the M-10iA model was updated to the M-20iA, the system could handle up to 12 cobs to be handled in one movement, potentially doubling output to 360 packs per minute.
"The advantages of using robotics for this application are huge. The cost savings that are gleaned from replacing human labour with a robot at a lower price point alone justify the capital investment,” said Rainer.
“Added to this, a robot will assume this dull, repetitive task with precision, at a consistently high speed, delivering significant production efficiency improvements and eliminating the repetitive strain injuries associated with this type of activity."
The robot’s special vacuum gripper, designed by Pacepacker Services, means the robot is specifically tailored to pick up a sweetcorn cob.
Paul Wilkinson, business development manager at Pacepacker Services, said the technology could feasibly be applied to other cylindrical flow-wrapped produce such as courgettes, aubergines, cucumbers and peppers.
"A standard vacuum cup would struggle to create and hold a vacuum on the uneven, curved surface of a sweetcorn cob, and any other type of gripper would damage the product,” he said.
“We engineered a special vacuum system that moulds around the cob. The vacuum is gentle, efficient and reliable.”