OEM designs automated packaging machine with integrated robotic control to achieve flexible, random indexing for handling natural casing products.
Take a stroll down the sausage aisle in any food market and chances are you will find a variety of locally sourced and artisan products sharing space with familiar global brands. Specialty sausage makers take pride in their craft — and many start their businesses packaging products manually. As market demand and production increases, automated solutions become a viable alternative.
However, niche sausages typically feature natural casings, which pose challenges for automated packaging equipment.
“Since natural casing sausages vary widely in length, curvature and size, the flow of product down the line can be quite random,” explains George Reed, vice president of engineering and operations, Drake. “Because of that variation, it will not run efficiently on traditional equipment designed for straight, uniform links.”
Recently, F.R. Drake Co., a Rockwell Automation OEM Partner, introduced the SR-400 robot autoloader to address the unique characteristics of natural casing products.
Drake supplies loading systems for cylindrical food products including sausage and cheese sticks. The company has a 90% share of the frankfurter loading market in the United States — and captures more than 80% of new sales in the Western Hemisphere.
Headquartered in Waynesboro, Virginia, Drake is a brand of The Middleby Corporation.
The SR-400 collates and places processed product into multiple horizontal packaging configurations. After exiting the smokehouse, the sausages are delinked and enter the autoloader’s hopper. Sausage links are randomly fed from the hopper to an elevator conveyor. Next, the links are indexed and aligned into individual buckets for conveyance to the robot.
Sensors at the end of the two-lane conveyor detect the presence of the sausage, which is indexed forward to feed the robot continuously. The robot uses high-speed end-of-arm tooling to pick the product and place it into packaging pockets.
The equipment loads up to 400 pieces per minute (ppm) and can handle a variety of products up to 200 mm (8 in.) in length.
“The SR-400 automatically adjusts to the random flow of product into the system,” notes Keith Hopkins, senior controls engineer, Drake. “If the product flow becomes more regular, the speed of the conveyor will become more continuous as well.”
To achieve this functionality, Drake took an innovative approach to smart machine design. Unlike conventional equipment that includes a separate robotic control environment, the SR-400 relies on one control platform for the entire system — from robotics control to indexing and conveyance.
“One Allen-Bradley® 5069 CompactLogix™ controller provides all the processing power we need from beginning to end,” says Hopkins. “By having the robot and all the servo drives integrated within one controller, the robot can follow the random indexing motion exactly. There is no encoder time delay.”
The single control environment means the entire system can be managed from one control touch screen. Plus, the overall machine design is simpler and easier to maintain.
“A conventional system with a mechanical loading head includes many components and must be adjusted frequently,” says Andre Richards, mechanical engineer, Drake. “The robotic design mitigates much of that complexity — and the need for mechanical expertise on-site.”
The servos control the Codian Delta robot as well as the indexing motion of the conveyors. Codian Robotics is an Encompass™ Product Partner in the Rockwell Automation PartnerNetwork™ program. Allen-Bradley PowerFlex® 525 AC drives run auxiliary conveyors in the system.
For machine guarding, the loader uses Allen-Bradley Guardmaster® safety relays and Allen-Bradley SensaGuard™ non-contact interlock switches. The system is integrated on an EtherNet/IP™ network and includes Stratix® 5700 Ethernet switches. The loader is monitored on an Allen-Bradley PanelView™ Plus 6 graphic terminal.
Ethernet connectivity allows Drake to offer remote monitoring via VPN to their customers as standard.
“With remote monitoring, we are often able to troubleshoot issues without an on-site visit,” says Reed.“This helps our customers save both time and money.”
“The new equipment has enabled our customer to manage the busy summer months without hiring an additional 10 to 15 seasonal employees,” Hopkins notes. “They typically had a difficult time filling those temporary positions, but now their permanent staff can handle the work.”
F.R. Drake Co., based in Waynesboro, Virginia, designs and manufactures automatic loaders for frankfurters, sausages, cheese sticks, and other products. Cylindrical food products are sorted, conveyed, and loaded at speeds up to 1,800 pieces per minute.
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