With brands and retailers producing more range variants and the race for retail shelf-space hotting up, Pacepacker Services has developed a new offline, portable Mixed Tray Loader pick-and-place system to quickly generate assorted trays of product. For smaller outlets, such as convenience supermarkets and inner-city delicatessens, these assorted product trays provide a creative way for retailers to offer a far wider product range on space restricted retail shelves.
The product swap unit, known as the Mixed Tray Loader (MTL), has already been installed at one UK manufacturer of own-label dips. Explaining the logic behind the MTL, Pacepacker Business Development Manager Paul Wilkinson says: “By stocking mixed trays of product, a larger supermarket can hold a wider range of product types, flavours and variants. Equally, a smaller inner-city store, which may previously have had to drop lines to make way for other products, can continue to offer a good variety.”
This dip producer clearly sees mixed trays as being an expanding opportunity too. They installed an MTL with a pneumatic Cartesian pick-and-place system positioned over twin lanes of filled trays. The picking heads remove one line of product from the first tray, and places it into the second. The process is then reversed to swap items in both trays. Paul says: “This customer has already asked us to double the capacity to 20 single-layer trays of dips per minute on the initial system, and has said it will order a second high-capacity MTL on delivery of the upgrade. We could not ask for a clearer indication that there is demand for this type of capability and that our solution is an effective one.”
Neil Farmer, independent consultant and spokesperson for the packaging sector, comments: “The whole food and grocery retail sector is a battlefield. To achieve higher shelf spacing is the challenge facing all producers. This is particularly so in metro, convenience and local stores where space is even more limited. The use of mixed tray systems therefore has great merit, allowing more variety, choice and range of products. In store it’s that ‘blink of an eye moment’, the 7 seconds when the consumer looks at the shelf and makes a purchasing decision. With an assorted range of products there’s a greater chance of seeing something which will catch the eye, leading to a purchase. The growth in brand extensions, personalisation and customisation of products is one of the most important trends in the retail sector. Consumers are used to having a wide choice of branded product options and mixed product trays can go a long way to facilitating this.”
Managing stock control
As well as overcoming a laborious task, the MTL can also help manage the stock control within smaller stores. While big supermarket chains have sufficient customers and buying power to stock a wide range of perishable food products, a smaller shop runs the risk of stock going out of date, effecting waste and profits. Paul explains: “In addition to offering customers a wider product range, using mixed cases and pallets also reduces handling costs and back room stock, so both customers and the retailers benefit.”
Pacepacker has tested the MTL system extensively with a range of products and packaging types. It is especially effective in handling plastic pots, jars and other rigid, flat-topped packs such as ready meals, since it relies on vacuum to grip and manipulate product. The system works well in categories such as dairy, where yoghurt, creams and soft cheeses are packed in pots, but it is equally suited to swapping canned goods and products in glass packaging, such as jam jars and salad dressings.
Although the first MTL installation utilised a fairly straightforward Cartesian pick-and-place arrangement, the system can just as easily be designed with delta or articulated arm robots. Paul explains: “If there is a range of tray or pot sizes, or several product configurations, a robotic system would offer greater flexibility than the Cartesian version. You tend to achieve better movement control and increased fluidity with a robot. You also have greater programming flexibility, which means you can swap around product from three trays rather than two, for example.”
One option worth considering when upgrading the Cartesian system is to replace pneumatic actuators with electronic devices. Doing this will normally allow finer control over acceleration and deceleration, which helps to significantly reduce product damage when handling and swapping delicate items.
As well as being highly compact, the new MTL system is also mobile. As a standalone operation, the MTL can be located in the warehouse area or in the production area; whichever makes more sense from a space and product-flow perspective.
The system can also be configured to other formats, including flexible packaging. Paul says: “In this instance, to form mixed-product collations a customer might need to consider laning options at the initial tray-loading stage. However, it’s worth remembering that complex laning can take up larger amounts of factory space.”
Pacepacker initiated the MTL project after the company’s own engineers were on-site working on another robotics application for the dips. Having observed up to five people in a single shift performing the manual ‘product swap’ operation, the team suggested that an automated system could be developed.
Paul explains: “A large part of our approach at Pacepacker is to keep tabs on retail trends, and when visiting customers we also examine the overall operational efficiency and where automation can solve a particular challenge or overcome a production bottleneck. It’s not always dependent on the customer coming to us with a problem. This newest ‘product swap’ development is a classic example of what can be accomplished when we look at the wider automation picture.”
The system can also be used for new product trials, slower-moving lines, seasonal and limited editions. To learn more about the offline, portable Mixed Tray Loader pick-and-place system please visit the website at www.pacepacker.com.