Bridging the Palletizing Production Gap with Robotic Automation
For IMO Foods Ltd., high standards for product quality and on-time delivery prompted the manufacturer of naturally smoked fish to address market demands and improve production inefficiencies via robotic automation.
With over half a century of experience in the seafood processing industry, IMO Foods Ltd. (IMO) of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia is a leading manufacturer of sustainably harvested fish including herring, mackerel and sardines. Since the cannery’s founding in 1968, high standards for product quality and on-time delivery have ensured consistent, premium seafood for local and global markets.
Addressing Persistent Pressures
In recent years, increased product demand due to healthier lifestyle choices combined with an on-going labor shortage in rural Nova Scotia made it difficult for the 75-worker facility to maintain production output to satisfy retail market demands. Further complicating matters, the surge in popularity for immune-boosting and shelf stable foods during the on-going Covid-19 pandemic placed greater pressure on the already stressed production line.
This was especially true for IMO’s existing end-of-line packaging procedure – a multi-step manual process that was inclined to slowing product output for popular Kersen® canned fish. With tens of thousands of cans to process a day, employees frequently rotated to complete manual tasks, minimizing worker fatigue and preventing injuries caused by ergonomic strain.
To address operational concerns and to ramp up production to stay competitive, company leaders began looking for viable solutions, including robotic automation. Following an automation study conducted by the Research Productivity Council (Fredericton, New Brunswick), IMO engaged Enginuity Inc. (Halifax, Nova Scotia) to conduct a process walk-through. A creative design engineering firm and robot integrator, Enginuity’s thorough assessment revealed the best way for IMO to optimize production was to implement a custom conveyance and robotic palletizing system.
Implementing Robotic Palletizing
After a preliminary design phase, the automated system underwent a test install at Enginuity’s facility. Not only did this minimize downtime on the IMO food production line, but it also served as a crucial step in solidifying the best robot and peripherals for fulfilling application demands. Here, it was proven that a single high-speed Yaskawa GP25 six-axis robot with a Schmalz pneumatic gripper would reliably handle IMO’s palletizing demands. The robot’s 25-kg payload capacity easily accommodated the packaged cases, while its reduced interference design enabled close proximity placement to other equipment – a necessary feature to accommodate IMO’s choppy and limited floorspace layout.
Since being installed at the IMO cannery in 2020, the custom conveyance and robotic palletizing system has enabled a more systematic and timely process. The 20’ tall spiral conveyor and transit system efficiently delivers cans from the final inspection station on the lower production floor to the packaging line on the main floor. From there, the GP25 robot quickly and fluidly picks the packaged cases and stacks them onto pallets for shipping in under five seconds – the desired target time to optimize production output.
Highly beneficial to the successful execution of this process is the utilization of PalletSolver® – a comprehensive palletizing software that allows users to quickly generate pallet patterns offline for virtually any mix of SKUs. Additionally, an online component of this PC-based tool optimizes the execution of pattern files and robot operation, streamlining the deployment of the robotic system.
Still an integral key player, Enginuity monitors the system remotely via the internet with the use of a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) solution, providing troubleshooting capability and system reprogramming to IMO, as needed.
Doubling Production Throughput
The current automated system runs six to eight hours a day, five days a week, keeping pace with busy market demands. The addition of the GP25 robot for palletizing has streamlined the packaging process, nearly eliminating all end-of-line manual tasks. In turn, this has freed workers from performing monotonous and unpopular jobs, boosting employee morale. It has also given them the ability to focus on higher value-added roles within the company, fulfilling customer orders in a timely manner.
Overall, IMO Foods Ltd. has experienced a smooth transition between the prior manual operation and the use of the new conveyance and robotic palletizing system. While these types of production changes within a factory can be difficult culturally, company “buy in” from the top down in favor of the automation system, along with the guidance of an experienced robot integrator, created a positive atmosphere where advanced technologies inspired by Industry 4.0 could bridge the production gap and reduce costs.
Well on the way to reaching ROI within the designated two-year payback period, robotic automation has opened the door for IMO to move toward doubling throughput. With current efficiency gains around twenty percent, company leaders plan to add more automation in 2021 with the hopes of achieving greater capacity gains and hiring more workers as the local workforce grows.