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Hard technology has a softer side

The Dutch company, FruitMasters' packaging division is five employees richer. They're not very friendly and have no sense of humor. But, they are very good at their jobs. These Robertpack's case loaders can crate up to 75 packages per minute with zero quality loss.

"At FruitMasters, we keep a constant eye on new developments. We're particularly interested in automating labor-intensive tasks," says Operations Manager Freek Versteeg. "Packing soft fruit is a very labor-intensive process with a fairly high capacity. It can be a taxing job, so is in less demand. There's a shortage in the labor market anyway, so innovative solutions are all the more than welcome."

Given the increasing use of robotic systems, this Dutch sales cooperative wondered whether robotization was also possible for soft fruit. "Soft fruit is extremely fragile," says Technical and Development Manager Jeffrey Verschoor. "It has to be handled carefully if you want to avoid damage. Yet robotization can help maintain efficiency. You can also get quality continuity."

"The technology just hadn't proven itself in the soft fruit sector yet. Robertpack confidently took on the challenge. Admittedly, there were some skeptics within FruitMasters. Surely a robot system can't handle the product as gently as human hands? The opposite has been proven. The case loader, in fact, handles the product more gently than people do."

The robot's movements when picking up and placing the trays down are programmed to avoid damaging the product. "It makes no sudden moves, so the packages can be placed as gently and smoothly as possible in the crate or box. That's actually never really possible with manual handling," explains Jeffrey.

Optimizing the packaging line
Robertpack has been developing and integrating robot systems for 45 years already. These are used for things like packaging, wrapping, and palletizing. The company supplied FruitMasters with five robotic case loaders. They connected these to the existing packing lines that top seal soft fruit trays.

"FruitMasters wanted to automate their soft fruit division's end part of the packing line. Workers would take the crates and boxes from a stack, fill them manually with the filled top seal trays, and then place the full crates and boxes back on a pallet. They asked us to optimize that process and make it more efficient," explains Eddy Oldeman of Robertpack. 

He led the project and, like FruitMasters, is proud of the result. Eddy described the process: "An employee places empty crates or boxes in stacks on the infeed conveyor. Then an automatic de-stacker ensures that one box or crate at a time is placed on the case loader's conveyor belt. There, the robot fills the crates or boxes."

"But not before the tray label has been checked. Here, at FruitMasters' request, we equipped the case loaders with camera scanners. After filling, sealing, weighing, checking, and labeling, the trays' labels are checked. If the label is incorrect, the tray is automatically removed from the line. A correctly-labeled tray continues towards the robot's pick-up point," says Eddy. 

Various programs, including for loading
A Fanuc delta robot was chosen for picking up and putting down the packages. Robertpack developed its grippers and tailored them to FruitMasters' specifications and many packaging formats. "For example, it can determine each tray's position in a crate or box. You can also set the number of trays and layers in a crate or box."

"We added a module, specifically for FruitMasters, that lets you apply sheets between the layers. You use an easy-to-operate touch screen to change and control the programs and loading patterns. And should something malfunction, we can provide quick, remote support," continues Eddy. 

The robot uses suction cups to, as it were, suck up the packaging. FruitMasters offers its soft fruit in different top seals, so two sizes of grippers were chosen. The case loaders can pick up both small and large trays. Think 125g trays for blueberries, raspberries, or blackberries to the larger 400 or 500g strawberry punnets. "The case loaders work better than expected," adds Freek.

"We've been using them since May. It took a while to change gears, mid-strawberry season, but we managed, even better than we thought we would. We began with 65 packages per minute, and now we have a capacity of 75 packages per minute. The great thing is that the staff, who had to get used to the idea, now proudly operate the case loaders. Our new 'workers' have been fully accepted."

Unique in the soft fruit sector
It took Robertpack some doing to convince FruitMasters that the case loaders could process fragile products like soft fruit. Eddy: "We ran a realistic test with the customer's product in our facility. The project fully combines Robertpack's technology and the client's wishes."

Freek agrees: "We genuinely took on this project together, which has led to this success. It's truly improved our packaging process efficiency while maintaining quality. We've taken further steps in fully automating the production process. Lastly, this innovation is unique in the soft fruit sector. We're nothing but proud of that."

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