Robots make light work of potatoes

By Noli Dinkovski

- Last updated on GMT

Morrisons' fresh produce depot has levelled up thanks to Brillopak
Morrisons' fresh produce depot has levelled up thanks to Brillopak

Related tags Technology & Automation

Productivity and efficiency at Morrisons’ fresh produce depot in Rushden, Northamptonshire, has reached “a whole new level” after the installation of two automated Brillopak crate-loading potato cells, the retailer has claimed.

Believed to be Europe’s first single pick potato packing cell, the UniPaker robotic pick-and-place cell was engineered by Brillopak in collaboration with the Rushden team. Designed to improve product handling, minimise waste and enhance the presentation of pre-packed potatoes, the robot adopts a new automated technique for gently loading vertical form fill and seal (VFFS) and flow-wrap bags into retail crates.

At speeds of at least 75 packs a minute for each cell, the two UniPaker systems cradle bags of potatoes, each weighing from 0.5kg up to 2.5kg, loading one at a time into crates, following multiple sets of presentation formats.

Presentation precision

The UniPaker’s level of presentation precision was one of the key drivers behind automating the case-loading operation at Rushden, according to Morrisons.

The installation, which forms part of a warehouse-wide efficiency improvement investment, has resulted in a 90% reduction in labour, the retailer explained. Previously, potato packs were loaded manually into crates – a labour-intensive process that incurred packing bottlenecks and resulted in messy tray presentation, it added.

Both UniPaker case-loading cells house high-payload Omron Delta robots. Working simultaneously, the robotic spider arms load potato packs individually into crates in set patterns at the programmed orientation. They operate with a degree of dexterity and rotation that would not be feasible with a layer-based automated handling system, Brillopak said.

Robotic systems

Clean, empty crates are fed automatically into both cells at a constant pace by two Brillopak Crate DeStaker systems. Once filled, the crates are stacked and palletised by an end-of-line robotic system.

Likened to a glove, the end effector works by enveloping each potato pack. By doing this it can accommodate the different sizes, weights and pack lumps for Morrisons’ range – which exceeds 14 stock-keeping units in a typical season – without having to swap the tooling over.

“With the level of air in the potato bags it was hard to conceive that a robot hand could load crates at such speed without popping or piercing the bag and damaging product,”​ said Morrisons site manager Andy Day. “Brillopak’s robot ... never misses a beat and is capable of orientating packs quicker than any person can do.”

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