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Ice cream cartoning goes with the flow

Sounds like a sweet job, working in an ice cream plant. And for a pair of LJ300M pick-and-place robotic top loaders, it soon will be. Unveiled at the U.K.'s PPMA 2003 (Processing & Packaging Machinery Assn.'s) show in September 2003, the ice cream carton top loader/collators left the show floor to "chill out" at Loseley Dairy Ice Cream in the U.K., which its owner and managing director Tim Wilson describes as "Europe's most efficient ice cream factory."

Loseley ice creams are made with butter, sugar, fresh double cream and milk in the Cornish tradition. Official supplier to all English Heritage sites, Wimbledon tennis and London theatres, the dairy provides three brands sold at retail and served by caterers throughout England: Loseley, Thayers, and Yorkshire Dales.

The company says that when complete, its 7,400-sq-m (24,278-sq-ft) dairy ice cream plant near Cwmbran will be able to produce four times the dairy's current output of the leading ice cream brands. The plant will have total capacity of 10,000 L/hr from seven production lines, two packing cartons and five packing tubs.

Key processing functions such as mixing, storage, pasteurizing, homogenizing, extruding and packaging are all computer-controlled. All information is digitally recorded in real time, providing instant access to past and present production data.

First in the U.K.
While the ice cream lines' wrapping systems were brought from the original factory, most of the packing line equipment is new. The robotic pick-and-place carton loaders will each be linked to a Bradman-Lake 2/60 carton erector and a compact R 3 FCC carton flap closer, to create two fully automatic, fully integrated cartoning operations. One line will be dedicated to packing "ices," while the other will pack fruit- or milk-based ice cream novelties, or what are called "lollies" in the U.K.

Linking a top loader and a pick-and-place robot with its carton erectors and closers, Loesley creates an integrated, automatic carton packaging system for ice cream novelties.

"We had no problem with being the first in the U.K. to obtain the new LJ300M robots," says Wilson. "We already use Bradman-Lake machines and know their expertise in high-speed product handling here and in the U.S. We have confidence in their engineering quality, long-life reliability and commitment to service. They also share our belief in being first in the market with new ideas."

Built mostly of stainless steel, aluminum and high-performance plastics to European Frozen Food standards, according to the Bradman-Lake, the robotic loaders were especially suitable for the Loseley plant's operating conditions. The LJ300M features the same electronic motion controls, "smart belt" technology and ABB Flex-Picker robotic units available on the 800-ppm version of the LJ Series, of which there are more than 30 in place in the U.S., according to Bradman-Lake.

The LJ300M robotic product collator and loader can accommodate multiple cartons or trays simultaneously. Suited for the output of medium-speed wrappers, the system incorporates advanced-design electronic motion control technology using a combination of variable-frequency and servo-motor drives. The machine controls and touchscreen operator interface access menus to provide flexible, fast changeover. While the system can wrap frozen novelties at speeds up to 300/min, depending on the product's characteristics, PD hears that Loseley will most likely start them out at a slower rate. As the plant becomes fully operational, however, speeds will increase.

Carton management
Making good usage of floorspace, the LJ300M can electronically interface with most wrapping machines and accepts flowrapped products up to 150 mm (5.90551 in.) wide. In operation, a powered flat-belt infeed conveyor with fixed tracking transfers the wrapped products with the fin-seals leading, into vacant, fast-indexing buckets of the turbotrain. Formed cartons are transferred from the erecting machine into a positioning conveyor as side belts space them using Smart Belt Technology. This spacing is maintained to the point where the robot loads the wrapped ice cream products into the moving or stationary carton bases. Wrapped products are transferred into fast-indexing buckets contained in a turbotrain built into a vertical racetrack conveyor. As each bucket is loaded, the turbotrain indexes one bucket until the required collation reaches the robot's unloading envelope. A breakaway safety bar installed prior to the indexing turbotrain can detect possible jams in the indexing bucket and can activate an emergency stop to prevent damage, if necessary.

At this point, the custom-designed end-of-arm tooling of the robot picks and groups the products and loads them either into the continuously moving or stationary carton (in the required collation pattern). The conveyor continues to index a supply of product to the robot. Single or multiple layers of novelties can be collated in the continuously moving or stationary cartons. The machine's control system is easily accessed using a color touchscreen and an Allen-Bradley PLC, in Loseley's case the Panelview 700. All communications between the touchscreen operator interface, PLC, motion controller and robot are through the DeviceNET system. The result is a programmed menu providing flexible and fast machine-size changeover.

At the Loseley plant, the line design anticipates that the flowrapped products be fed randomly into the two LJ300M systems in which they are transferred into buckets on a vertical racetrack conveyor. Cartons formed by the 2/60 erectors can be positioned by two sets of servo-driven side belts as the Flex-Picker robots lift the collated products–10 Luxury Choc Ices and three chocolate or fruit Maximums at a time–and load them into the empty cartons. The 2/60 erectors have two carton blank magazines each that can pick a flat blank using vacuum-equipped mechanical tooling and place the blank on top of the forming head before a plow pushes the blank down through the forming head. In the process, the four corners of the carton lock together via a tab pushed through a slot in the corner of the carton's base. The carton former works at speeds up to 120 cartons/min (60 cycles/min), depending on the carton size.

Lickety-split product handling
The plan calls for the filled cartons to be closed and sealed on three sides with hot melt by the Compact R Closers, which first seal the front flaps and then the side flaps using flexible carton control and positive 90-deg turns to control the flow. Differing from conventional chain-and-flight carton closers that feed into flights, the Compact 3 spaces cartons using powered side-running rubber "fingers" on the machine's infeed.

"Robotic product handling will give us faster cycle times, more reliability and greater accuracy," says Wilson. "Integrating the systems with carton erection and closing equipment from a single supplier on our doorstep offers real benefits."

More information is available:

Robotic collator/loader: Bradman-Lake, Inc., 704/588-3301. Circle No. 220.

Flex-pick robots: ABB Flexible Automation, 262/785-3566. Circle No. 221.

Controls: Allen-Bradley Co., 440/646-3276. Circle No. 222.

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