Alex Diaz is no stranger to change. As packaging systems engineer at The Hershey Company’s central manufacturing facility in the U.S. northeast, he’s gotten used to change being the only constant at the around-the-clock plant—manufacturer of the famed Hershey’s, Kit Kat, Cadbury and other perennial bestselling confectioneries—cranking out a wide variety of low- to mid-velocity SKUs (stock-keeping units) that can change seasonally, weekly and even daily to suit the everchanging demands of the Hershey marketing team, retail stores and, of course, the everyday consumers.
For a company demanding this much flexibility, it better have all its packaging, logistics, and material handling solutions up to scratch at all times, which is what it got after having St. Louis, Mo.-based material handling systems integrator FKI Logistex revamp and automate the plant’s palletizing operations.
Until 2005, just about everything at the plant was hand-palletized—resulting in low palletizing rates and high manual labor costs.
“We had three to four people palletizing per line, per shift, for three shifts a day,” recalls Diaz. “So we’re talking about 12 to 15 people palletizing at once, depending on how complicated the patterns were.”
Along with project manager Dennis Empson and staff engineer Matt Eroh, Diaz approached FKI Logistex to design an automated palletizing system that could handle Hershey’s low- to mid-velocity SKUs — ranging from one to 40 cases per minute—while fitting within the tight confines of the plant’s 7,000-square-foot palletizing area.
After weighing the pros and cons of conventional and robotic palletizing options, FKI proposed the latter option as the most efficient one for the plant’s needs.
“Hershey’s eight production lines required significantly more conveyor than they had space to accommodate,” explains FKI Logistex senior project manager Mark Conreux, whereas robotic palletizing offered a more versatile option by enabling Hershey to send three different lines to one robot to palletize in three different positions at once.
While this greatly reduced the amount of conveyor required, the robots would not have been able to keep up with production rates of the higher-velocity SKUs.
To resolve that, FKI Logistex decided to proceed with installing a hybrid-type system that would combine the best aspects of robotic and conventional palletizing.
Specifically, the new system would process the mid- to high-velocity SKUs to an FKI Logistex A-780 case palletizer, while low-velocity SKUs would be handled by one of three Motoman EPL 160 jointed-arm robots.