UK dairy dazzled by robot automation as productivity soars by 50%

UK dairy dazzled by robot automation as productivity soars by 50%

Wrexham-based dairy experiences improved hygiene and faster production output with robot-based automated trolley packer

 An ABB robot has helped Welsh dairy goods manufacturer Tomlinson’s improve its productivity as part of a trolley packing solution designed by automation systems integrator Mechelec Automation. Working up to 18 hours a day loading bottles of milk into trolleys, the robot-based system has doubled the number of four-pint bottles packed from 120 to 240 per minute.

Based in Wrexham, Tomlinson’s supplies over 25 million litres of fresh milk a year to over 300 outlets across Wales, the Midlands and the Northwest of England.

Previously Tomlinson’s manually loaded its trolleys at the end of the filling line, but the company often experienced a bottleneck, with trolleys becoming jammed when they were moved to load the bottles of milk. In addition, there was a constant risk of repetitive strain (RSI) or lifting injuries through repeatedly lifting and loading the products.

Time for transformation

When Tomlinson’s decided to speed up production by upgrading other stages of its production line, the company realised that it needed to automate the loading system as well to boost productivity.

With previous experience in the dairy industry, John Salisbury, Mechanical Engineer at Mechelec Automation, was familiar with the handling problems presented at the end of dairy filling lines. Aware of the many dairy companies using trolleys, Mechelec Automation had already begun devising an automated solution to tackle the problems typically associated with transporting milk bottles from the end of the line into supermarkets.

Called the TP1002 trolley packer, this solution incorporates an ABB palletising robot with a bespoke end effector tool, compressed air operated components, servo drives and a variety of mechanical parts. Designed to perform at faster speeds than current systems, the TP1002 avoids jamming, improves productivity and is easy to maintain and clean.

Pneumatic automation of the trolley packer’s collation system includes a configurable air supply unit suitable for a food production environment, ISO standard routine cylinders (DNSU), rotary cylinders (DSM) and compact valve terminals (VTUG). Supplied by Festo, these components are included to make the system as reliable, cost-effective and efficient as possible and were supplied ready-tested and assembled.

The dairy leap of faith

Keen to explore the benefits of a robotic automation solution, Tomlinson’s incorporated the TP1002 trolley packer into its production line.

“To boost productivity across the dairy, we realised we would need to automate the loading of the trolleys,” explains Philip Tomlinson, Managing Director at Tomlinson’s Dairies. “We approached Mechelec Automation because we knew they had the relevant experience to implement a system which would meet our specifications, including removing the risk of jamming and improving health and safety. Both challenges have been overcome whilst efficiency has improved, and production output has greatly increased. We can respond to orders and deliver our products faster than ever before. The system currently operates during set periods but in the future, it will be used 24/7 as orders increase and production needs to be ramped up.”

Bottles of milk are fed from a filling line through a conveyor system, before passing into a multilane set up, which divides them into four lanes. They are then collated into the required format, with four lanes consisting of five bottles per lane. Two groups of five bottles are collated either side of the machine until there are twenty bottles either side waiting to be loaded onto two trolleys.

One group of five bottles is then pushed into the robot gripper which lifts and rotates them 180 degrees towards the first trolley. The trolleys have four shelves with the bottom shelf being loaded with the first twenty bottles. When all four shelves are full, the trolley is taken to the cold stores whilst the second trolley is loaded, and the next empty trolley is positioned, after which the process is then repeated.  

Where previously it took four workers a minute to fully load two trolleys, the automated system has reduced it to forty seconds. As a result, Tomlinson’s productivity has improved by 50%.

Overall success

The jamming of the trolleys is no longer a problem either because the bottles of milk are brought to the trolleys which remain at the same level. This contrasts with the previous approach when they had to be manoeuvred to fit in line with the loading system.

Health and safety has also significantly improved. With no need for manual packing of the milk bottles, the risk of repetitive strain injuries has been eliminated.

Furthermore, hygiene is very important at dairy production sites such as Tomlinson’s. To pass regulatory inspections conducted by the Food Standards Agency, all products must be of the highest quality when they reach the consumer, which calls for daily cleaning of all processing equipment.

The TP 1002 Trolley Packer allows staff to get easier access to the end of the line so that it can be cleaned. The ABB robot has an IP67 rating which means it can be washed down regularly without risk of damage to equipment.

Another benefit of the robotic packing system is its inherent flexibility. Although currently set up to handle four-pint bottles, the TP1002 can be easily reprogrammed to handle other bottle sizes if required. It can also be reprogrammed to load different trolleys, or shrink-wrapped products if necessary.

“If a customer wants an automated solution which can switch between products and work with various trolley types, we can pre-commission it so that the recipes are built into the system,” explains John Salisbury at Mechelec Automation. “The flexibility of production at a dairy goods manufacturer is significantly increased where robot automation is installed due to the many capabilities and opportunities that the programming software provides.”

Spoiled for choice

When asked why he chose an ABB robot to be integrated within the TP1002 trolley packer system rather than any of the other options available, John Salisbury’s response was simple, “There was no other robot which could handle 180kg at full speed with the reach of 3.15m. We needed a robot which could manage the weight of a number of bottles of milk as well as extend its arm the appropriate distance to reach the trolleys. ABB robots are also reliable. We also have a good relationship with ABB – they allowed us to trial the robot when we initially began this project.”

Says Mike Wilson, ABB Business Development Manager for the UK and Ireland: “Dairy companies such as Tomlinson’s experience much the same challenges as the rest of the food and beverage industry. The increasing demands of today’s consumer means that the ability to offer a variety of products is becoming the expectation.”

”Dairy companies that embrace automation now will become increasingly flexible. By being prepared for the last-minute batch orders that come in as a result of the changeable market, they will be well-positioned as a market leader with improved competitiveness and productivity. We congratulate Tomlinson’s Dairy on making the investment and will continue to support both Tomlinson’s and Mechelec Automation should they need us in the future.”


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