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Candymaker uses robots and conveyors to speed productionCandymaker uses robots and conveyors to speed production

March 11, 2015

4 Min Read
Candymaker uses robots and conveyors to speed production

Located just 10 minutes from Boston's Logan Intl Airport in a new 816,000-sq.ft facility, New England Confectionery Co. (NECCO) manufactures a variety of treats from its famed candy wafers, to chocolate bars, to thin chocolate mints, to private-label brands. One of the Revere, MA-based company's top-selling Valentine Day candies is its Sweethearts Conversation Hearts.

Sugar rush


More than 8 billion Sweethearts candies are manufactured each year, all of which NECCO produces from late February through mid-January of the following year. The company says its entire Sweethearts production sells out in six weeks.

To help streamline the Sweethearts' packaging process, an automated conveying and picking system that uses two ABB (www.abb.com/robotics) Flex-Picker robots with several Dorner Mfg. (www.dorner.com) 3200 series conveyors was installed.

At the time of publication, the system has been operational for nearly a year. In that time, NECCO has seen a boost in production of 20 percent by going from 400 to 500 boxes/min. NECCO corporate industrial engineering manager Frank Russo reports that during the busiest times of the year, the system operates two, 10-hour shifts/day.

Conversations on the move

The system, which is the result of a collaborative effort between Dorner Mfg. and JLS Automation (www.jlsautomation.com), transports 334-in. boxes of hearts from existing upstream equipment through a picking cell.

Once the boxes are filled with conversational hearts, they move onto a set of 3200 series conveyors, where they are turned and positioned correctly for scanning. The first of two robots then picks some of the boxes for stacking. After making a sharp-right turn on a 3200 series modular, plastic-chain curve conveyor, the remaining boxes are scanned once more prior to being picked by a second robot.

A robot picks up four boxes of candy hearts and places them on a parallel conveyor, while allowing four additional boxes to pass. The boxes will be picked up by a second robot later.

The Flex-Picker robot completes its picking action based on the information gathered by the scanning process. For example, if there was a small gap between incoming boxes, the Flex-Picker would adjust its action to accommodate these variations.

A challenging aspect of the application was the high-rate of speed at which the candy boxes approach the robot-picking cell. “The tricky part involving the conveyors on the feeding side was that the boxes were coming to us at up to 500/min, and what we had to do was present them from the conveyors to the robots in the respective groupings,” says JLS Automation president Craig Souser. “So we needed to create accumulation and meter them out, and we use the Dorner conveyors for that purpose.”

The JLS system accumulates the boxes and times them into the picking cell for the robots to make the correct pattern of four, six, eight or 12 boxes. Inside the picking cell, a parallel 3200 series conveyor operates alongside the mainline conveyor that has brought the boxes from the filling station.

On a production run of eight boxes, the robot picks four boxes and places them onto the parallel conveyor. During this process, the Flex-Picker allows four additional boxes to pass. These four boxes continue down the mainline conveyor for a few more feet, where a second robot picks the boxes and places them on top of the four original boxes on the parallel conveyor. At this point, a set of eight boxes—four on the bottom, four on top—are ready to be shrink-wrapped or placed in a bag.

The stacked boxes move through a Shanklin (www.sealedair.com) shrink wrapper or an Ilapak (www.ilapak.com) Carrera 2000 PC horizontal, form/fill/seal machine. The wrapped boxes are loaded manually into cases and prepared for shipment.

Russo reports that the system packages two cases/min during peak production times. “Considering there are 24 packs in a case, each containing eight boxes, that's pretty fast,” he remarks. “We're very pleased.”

More information is available:

Dorner Mfg. Corp, 800/397-8664. www.dorner.com.

ABB Robotics, 248/391-8763. www.abb.com/robotics.

Ilapak, 215/579-2900. www.ilapak.com.

JLS Automation, 717/505-3800. www.jlsautomation.com.

Shanklin, a Sealed Air Corp. brand, 866-773-4567. www.sealedair.com.

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