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Case study: Bottom line boosted for beans

Great Canadian Bean Company, Canada

At the Great Canadian Bean Company, robots take over from humans to palletize beans in a range of packages, saving money and improving conditions for workers.

The Great Canadian Bean Company really knows its beans – from navy to pinto to black turtle beans, not to mention dark red, light red and white kidney beans. For nearly 30 years, the global supplier of beans, based in London, Ontario has provided dry, edible beans to both the domestic and international canning and packaging industries. 
       On average, the company employs approximately two-dozen workers, who are charged with cleaning, sorting and bagging the beans. However, until recently the bags were manually palletized – a task that was taking a physical toll on employees. Plus, it was limiting the company’s ability to meet increased daily production requirements. 

Streamline processes

“We were assigning multiple workers to palletize the bags, including one operator to fill and sew the bags and two to four operators to load the full bags onto pallets,” says Bill MacLean, owner and president of the Great Canadian Bean Company. “The employees needed frequent breaks and were prone to injury from lifting the heavy bags.” 
        With so many workers focused on one task, other areas of production were not operating as efficiently. The company needed to find a solution that would streamline the palletizing process, reduce workplace accident insurance premiums and provide more overall flexibility for bean production.

Palletizing application

MacLean contacted the Automation Project Group, a robotics/automation systems integrator specializing in palletizing and packaging equipment for a recommendation. The Automation Project Group worked with ABB to install an IRB 640 palletizing robot at The Great Canadian Bean Company. 

Why robots?

“We explored a robotic solution and examined several robot companies and packaging companies for a product that would boost efficiency,” says Dwayne Wanner, president, Automation Project Group.

“We immediately chose ABB Robotics for its superior quality, great programming platform and its excellent service team.”

In addition, the robotized palletizing solution has:

• Reduced the number of employees needed for the task so they can focus on other necessary tasks for the company to stay competitive
• Decreased the number of injuries of workers
• No more claims for broken bags since the robots pack them correctly every time.
The robot has a 352-pound handling capacity – allowing it to handle the heavy loads of full bags of beans – and palletizes to a height of 8.5 feet. Plus, it offers user-friendly software, so employees can easily program pallet patterns off-line on a separate personal computer and then download them to the controller. 
      The installation began in August 2005 and took approximately two weeks. The robot was incorporated into the existing bean packaging process so that it operates side-by-side with the manual workforce. Once filled, bags are transferred through the sewing station into a Kicker/Turner unit, which rotates the bag 90 degrees before laying it on its side. The bag then travels across a metering belt that ensures bags are gapped before entering the pickup roller conveyor. The ABB robot picks up the bags using a clam shell style gripper and places them in the pallet pattern selected by the operator. 

Surprising benefit

Since the installation of the robot, the number of people palletizing and the number of workplace injuries from lifting and handling bags have been reduced to zero. In addition, pallets are loaded and shipped as fast as the beans are cleaned, they are made much more quickly, and damage to bags on pallets has been reduced to zero, allowing the company to deliver more products to its customers in a shorter amount of time. 
      “The biggest surprise was how easy it was for the operators to program the robot for different pallet configurations,” says MacLean. “Prior to using the robot, the employees were very skeptical that it could do the job. Now, they can’t imagine how they ever loaded all the pallets without it.” 
       One benefit that was not calculated in advance was the reduction in broken and damaged bags. The bags must be loaded onto the pallet in very tight configurations so that they do not hang over the edge. If the bags are out too far, they brush against the entrance to overseas containers and are broken. 
       Now, the robot places the bags precisely and correctly as required, resulting in no claims from such damages. Interestingly enough, the robot has also been a big hit with local residents: Small groups come to see the robot working at the end of the bagging line. 

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