January 29, 2014

6 Min Read
Robotic bottle handling

Canadian Springs Water Company (CSWC), which opened its doors in '86, is a western Canada-based operation serving more than 130,000 customers throughout British Columbia and Alberta. It is the largest home and office bottled-water company in Canada, with six large, modern water processing and bottling facilities. The newest is a 45,000-sq-ft plant in Richmond, BC, which is the largest state-of-the-art pure water plant in Canada.

The Richmond plant runs 3- and 5-gal returnable polycarbonate bottles of water at a rate of 2,200 bottles/hr. The finished bottles are loaded into racks that are placed in trucks for delivery to customers. A number of different racks are required for different customers; typically they are either three or four bottles wide and five bottles high.

151047-1202canadian2.jpg CSWC installed a mechanical system in the Richmond facility in '99 to handle the bottles, but it was never able to meet the required production rate and was incapable of handling different rack types and sizes. The plant removed the system in '00 and went to a manual loading operation. While this gave them the ability to load any rack, it required five to six people to keep up with production. This was very costly, and since a 5-gal bottle of water weighs more than 45 lb, employees were not volunteering for the job.

To solve this problem, CSWC contacted Ram Mountain Contracting, Inc. After evaluating CSWC's requirements, Ram proposed its Bottle Cell 100 system, which incorporates a Fanuc S-430iW robot with a patented end-of-arm-tool (EOAT), feed and takeaway conveyors, and associated software and peripheral equipment. Once CSWC accepted the proposal, Ram had full turnkey responsibility for the project.

The S-430iW is a six-axis, electric, servo-driven robot, designed and engineered for high-speed, flexible material handling, user-friendly setup and maximum reliability. With its vertical articulation and large work envelope featuring a horizontal reach of 134 in., a vertical reach of 14 in. and a waist rotation of 360 deg, this robot is designed to maximize workcell flexibility. Its integral controller and compact design make it ideal for limited-floorspace applications. The S-430iW, equipped with a patent-pending bottle gripper, has a usable payload capacity of 264 lb. It can position bottles with a repeatability of ?0.020 in. (?0.5 mm) at full velocity, arm extension and payload.


Robot, which handles 2,200 bottles/hr, picks up four or six bottles at a time, left, depending on the rack configuration. Ink-jet printers apply codes to bottle tops, center. Bottles are delivered to an area between the robot and the rack conveyor, right.

The bottle-gripping EOAT has no moving parts. It is basically a scoop with pockets for the necks of the bottles. The robotic arm places the tool over the neck of the bottle, while it is in an upright position on the infeed conveyor. When the robotic arm pulls back on the bottle and tips it on its side, the bottle is locked into the tool between the neck and the wider portion of the body in a cantilevered manner. In this horizontal position, the bottle's weight is mostly supported at the wider, more robust portion of the bottle, while the neck is merely balancing and keeping the bottle engaged in the tool. This allows rapid movement of the arm while engaging bottles in the EOAT.

An added challenge with the CSWC project was the requirement to handle both three- and four-wide racks. This required the design of a quick-change tool on the end of the robot arm to minimize changeover time in order to meet production requirements.

Bottle damage to zero
Forklift drivers at CSWC load racks full of empty bottles onto a chain-driven live-roller conveyor, after which the racks are moved through an area where people remove and inspect the empty bottles. Empty racks are then transported into the loading zone (two at a time for three-wide and one at a time for four-wide). At the same time, full bottles of water are conveyed into an area between the robot and the rack conveyor. A full-bottle pusher slides the bottles onto an indexing pan, where the robot using the EOAT engages them. Depending on which rack they are currently loading, the robot places either four or six bottles at a time into the rack.

The new bottle-handling system provides the ability to load different rack types and sizes, while maintaining the required operating speed. Because the EOAT has no moving parts, it did not add a lot of maintenance hassles that normally go along with an automated system handling complex issues. The system has eliminated five physically demanding staffing positions. Another savings has been lower overall employee benefit payments resulting from reduced head-count, and reduced workers' health and safety insurance claims.

The robotic system has also dramatically reduced bottle damage. The bottle, which is reused, is intended for home and office water coolers, so maintaining a good appearance is very important. Furthermore, the bottles cost $10 each, and scrap-bottle costs, which previously ran as high as $3,000/day, have been reduced essentially to zero. The robot also increased production flexibility. The operation is so simple that it is very easy to cross-train staff and use different people to run the plant. Taking all of this into consideration, return on investment for the project was 20 percent, and payback time was three years.

"I am very pleased with Ram Mountain's work on this project and the performance of the robotic system installed at our Canadian Springs Water Company facility in Richmond, BC, Canada. The robot itself has met all of our expectations and even exceeded others," says L.R. Brookes, international vp of production, Sparkling Spring Water Group Ltd. (the parent company of CSWC). "I would recommend Ram Mountain to any organization considering introducing robotic rack loading equipment to their bottling plants."

Some key points of the project that Brookes emphasizes include:

• The planning and pre-installation details were executed so well that it felt as if they happened "all by themselves."

• The installation was extremely professional and efficient. The crew really knew its stuff.

• The attention to detail during the installation was excellent.

• The technical training for the robot was thorough and "paced" appropriately for CSWC's equipment operator's ability to absorb the material.

• The equipment was delivered on a Saturday morning at 7 a.m., and the robot was fully operational, loading bottle racks by 4 p.m. the following Monday. It has not missed a beat since.

More information is available:

Systems integrator, project manager: Ram Mountain Contracting, Inc., 209/531-9155. Circle No. 221.

Robot: Fanuc Robotics North America, 243/377-7000. Circle No. 222.

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