Robot solution for rapid food packing

Jon Lawson

Fold it, seal it, tape it, box it, pick it, place it — automate it. No, these aren’t Daft Punk lyrics, but the separate processes that Finland-based Orfer needed to automate to speed up its packaging operations. However, automating these processes without expanding on factory floor space was no easy feat.

For a new design of a fully automated packing machine targeted to the food and packaging industries, Orfer needed a robot that offered fast and accurate handling and that could easily integrate with a vision system to track and pick parts from a moving conveyor.

Orfer innovates, engineers and manufactures robotic material-handling systems for a range of industries. The company’s existing BoxCell system uses a Toshiba Machine TH650A SCARA robot from TM Robotics to quickly pack products into plastic or cardboard boxes. 

Orfer’s newest system — the BoxCellPlus — expands on its popular BoxCell packing cell with the ability to open flattened boxes, fold the flaps, and seal the bottom with tape and then fill the box with products — all in one economical, space-saving and fully automated packing cell. 

For the design of the BoxCellPlus, Nigel Smith, CEO of TM Robotics, helped Orfer define the robot specification based on the reach, payload, and cycle time requirements for food and packaging applications.

Assessing the requirements
Smith assessed Orfer’s needs and ruled out a six-axis or spider-style robot. “Packing is a classic pick-and-place application,” he explained. “It doesn’t require the dexterity of a six-axis robot and needs a greater working envelope than a spider-style robot offers.” With this in mind, Orfer standardised on the Toshiba Machine TH650A high-speed SCARA robot for the BoxCellPlus.

“Toshiba Machine’s SCARA robots can reach as far as 1.2 meters, but the TH650A is one of our best-selling robots due in large part to its reach of 650 millimetres, which is closely equivalent to the length of the human arm,” Smith continued. “Many automated processes were originally designed for human workers, so consciously or not, this is a common specification, especially for packing and assembly applications.”

While Toshiba Machine SCARA robots can handle payloads of up to 20 kilograms, the TH650A payload of 10 kilograms is ideal for food packaging. This allows a wide variety of products to be picked, while supporting a variety of tool configurations. 

“The TH650A uses a larger motor and high performance RF gears on joints one and two, which are the strongest, longest-lasting gears for a SCARA arm,” said Smith. “This, along with its fast cycle time, made the TH650A ideal for the high-speed, high-throughput demands of Orfer’s end-of-line packing application.” 

Flexibility is key
Orfer’s designers chose the ceiling-mounted option for the TH650A robot so it could be placed above the conveyor rather than using the standard floor mounting to the side. This allowed them to minimise the overall size of the BoxCellPlus while maximising the robot’s ability to access products coming down the moving conveyor and place them into the box. 

The TH650A robot’s ability to place parts accurately within 0.01 millimetres was enhanced with an extended Z shaft of 400 millimetres that enables parts to be placed deeper into the box. This accuracy and depth helps prevent product damage during packing, and provides consistent, high-quality output for Orfer customers. 

As part of an automated packing system, the BoxCellPlus can be fed from conveyors from a weight-checker, labelling machine or a vacuum packer. The robot also interfaces with leading vision systems, which can be used for inspection and to send coordinate data to the robot to pick parts from a moving conveyor.

So Orfer is now able to pass along the advantages of the Toshiba Machine robot in its new BoxCellPlus system, including faster, more accurate processing, smaller size and lower cost.