Conceptualising the bigger picture when re-designing the automation of a large packing hall is quite an art. As the project manager overseeing the Morrisons Thrapston fresh produce Centre of Excellence automation program will testify, success comes down to one thing: a sound strategy underpinned by detailed planning.
Having project managed countless food factory packing halls, Morrisons Engineering Manager and Project Engineer, Craig Savage, shares the benefit of his wisdom. Including how the phased investment approach, managed in total collaboration with British automation specialist Brillopak, helped the fresh produce site to successfully realise its five-year automation ambition.
Although somewhat smaller than other projects Craig has masterminded over his four-decade career, the complete restructuring of 11 packing lines, including 180-degree rotation of all equipment at Thrapston tops the list of one of the most complex he has overseen. “Switching from manual packing to automated lines in this instance was an even greater undertaking as we had to work around and maintain packing operations while minimising the upheaval of taking lines out of action,” recaps Craig.
Rather than do it in one big hit, which the now-retired project manager implies is virtually impossible unless you have a green field site, Thrapston introduced Brillopak’s modular packing and crate-handling technology in three phases, spread over 2016, 2018, and 2021.
From the start, former site manager of Thrapston, Matthew Peczek, was resolute that linear production lines – from the chillers through flow wrap packaging, weighing, crate filling and on to palletising – were the best approach to improve efficiency and product quality. It meant flipping the entire layout, which Craig recalls was the greatest logistical challenge. Drawing upon Brillopak’s design, AutoCad and engineering expertise, Craig and the Kent-based automation team started to map out their phased plan.
Craig expands: “There were numerous design iterations. With projects of this magnitude, the devil is always in the detail. So we worked collaboratively with Brillopak constantly revising the 3D AutoCad drawings until we were assured that every potential stumbling block to fully-automated integration had been considered and addressed.”
Craig equates it to running a military operation. He explains: “There are so many processes and factors to consider at the outset when reconfiguring the layout. You are having to balance lots of competing issues. Once you press go and commence deployment of equipment, you need to feel confident that every abstract and potential curveball has been considered and addressed.”
In Thrapston’s case, with multiple packing workstations, Brillopak and the Morrisons Project team had to pre-consider the entire logistics of changing every workflow. This included examining access points, where power feeds needed to be added or repositioned, the conveyor layouts and the precise locations of every single communication sensor, of which there were dozens, and all the programming software required to circumvent bottlenecks.
Every piece of the puzzle
Brillopak produced the initial architectural drawings for the Morrisons, Thrapston phased automation concept. Its consulting service started with a 3D model to insert and remove machinery until every facet had been considered and a workable plan was realised. The automation specialist now has a 3D printed version of this template to assist customers physically manoeuvre and visualise how they might build up their factory floor. This helps to ensure critical factors aren’t overlooked that could potentially jeopardise automation transitions.
Defining these requirements commences with Brillopak performing a full plant due diligence exercise, capturing the exact requirements and determining the automation goals and drivers. In step two, the company examines existing plant architecture to assess space, utilities, flow and potential, including technology or conveyor tracks that could be redeployed into the new space. Lastly, Brillopak examines the packaging, in terms of the product, the package types, the primary materials and the desired throughput, to define the robotic systems.
The devil, re-emphasises Craig, is most definitely in the detail. “It’s a constant juggling act. Especially when maintaining packing operations while simultaneously designing and installing new lines. Frankly, from the moment the design commences to signing the order and install, the project management process becomes your entire life.”
Flipping the entire packing hall layout around 180-degrees while keeping the main track operational through all three stages of the project was logistically challenging, reaffirms Craig. It involved multiple simulations to define the best approach. New access doors and platforms were inserted and refrigeration doors were moved.
Approximately one fifth of the main track was removed along with the overhead crate feed track. To optimise efficiency a two-tiered conveyor track was proposed. Now, the lower level feeds all the clean empty crates to the 11 packing lines, while the top tier transports filled fresh produce crates to the palletiser.
Given all the additional product SKUs being processed – comprising apples, pears, tomatoes, apricots, blueberries and grapes – and totalling 130 million packs of fruit annually – the Brillopak design also needed to factor in interlinked timings at each sensor control point.
Running much like a massive train set, each line calls to the Crate DESTAKers to feed crates to the robot where products are packed into the crate, gently but at high speed. To avoid packing bottlenecks and crate collisions, ‘stop’ and ‘go’ sensors at every conveyor touchpoint, including looking up through the conveyor rollers, instruct the feeding of crates to the robot UniPAKers and PAKstations in a constant cycle. With 11 adjacent lines running concurrently, the programming is seamless.
Push on Green
With all simulations proving the efficacy of Thrapston’s automation program, commission, build and install were given the green light. This is when the planning fun really ramps up, claims Craig. “Once GO authorisation is issued, plans become even more detailed. Brillopak updates accelerated from monthly to bi-weekly to daily and finally hourly, with all workstreams kept in the loop throughout the install. The team, in my experience, is second to none. They are knowledgeable, supportive, flexible and very easy to work with.”
Using a timelapse camera, day and night Craig monitored progress against every element of his detailed plan. “When overseeing multiple contractors, and equipment is being moved in and connected overnight, it’s essential to have eyes on every aspect,” notes Craig. Staff training also needs to be factored into this plan; enabling the workforce during each switchover to have the confidence to automatically step between one packing process to another.
Citing Brillopak’s true expertise as being pick-and-place robotics, Craig is resolute that it’s often the less-visible services that are so fundamental to the success of automation projects. “A machine is just that … a machine. Yet, how technology talks to each other and integrates with everything else up and down the line is where the true value rests. Projects of this scale require constant tweaks and adjustments. Having Brillopak by our side to help ensure elements aren’t missed during the scoping out phase to resolving issues, even if they are not their making, is the real value-add. From the biggest challenge to the smallest detail, they deliver on every count,” ends Craig.
Over the phased installations, Thrapston installed 40 Brillopak machines spread across 11 fresh produce packing lines. The latest tally includes eight Delta robotic UniPAKers, six semi-automated ergonomic PAKStations, four crate DESTAKers, 11 bale arm closers, and 11 double stackers.