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Robot Helps Boost Bottom Line for Bean Business

June 6, 2007
An ABB 640 four-axis palletizing robot was incorporated into the existing bean packaging process, where it operates side-by-side with the manual workforce at the Great Canadian Bean Co.

For nearly 30 years, The Great Canadian Bean Co. (London, ON, Canada) has provided dry, edible beans to both the domestic and international canning and packaging industries. As a global supplier of white and colored beans, the company oversees all aspects of bean production, from growing and processing to marketing and distribution. Its products include high-quality navy, cranberry, dark-red kidney, light-red kidney, white kidney, Dutch brown, black turtle, and pinto beans.

Although most of the shipments from the company are in bulk bags, there is a considerable amount of product shipped in 25- and 50-kg sacks. In addition, the seasonality of the business means that there is considerable pressure to ship the smaller bags to different international markets at the same time. Therefore, the smaller bags demand manpower to palletize and ship while the larger bulk bags are also being processed. On average, the company employs approximately two-dozen workers, who are charged with cleaning, sorting, and bagging the beans. However, the bags were manually palletized—a task that was taking a physical toll on the employees. In addition, manual palletizing was limiting the company’s ability to meet increased daily production requirements. This was especially true for the export markets that take the smaller bags.

“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,” said Bill MacLean, owner and president of the Great Canadian Bean Co. “The employees needed frequent breaks and were prone to injury from lifting the heavy bags.”

Since the robot was installed, pallets are loaded and shipped as fast as the beans are cleaned, allowing the company to deliver more products to customers in a shorter time.

With so many workers focused on one task, other areas of production were not operating 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.

An Automatic Solution

The Great Canadian Bean Co. palletizes its products in a variety of patterns and sizes to meet customers’ needs. Performing this task manually was time-consuming, since it required frequent production interruptions, slowing product turnaround for customers. The company researched nonrobotic automation products as an alternative to manual palletizing, but none of them, including multiple palletizing configurations, met the desired specifications.

MacLean contacted Automation Project Group, a robotics/automation systems integrator that specializes in palletizing and packaging equipment. “We explored a robotic solution and examined several robot companies and packaging companies for a product that would boost efficiency,” said Dwayne Wanner, president of Automation Project Group. “We immediately chose ABB Robotics for its superior quality, great programming platform, and its excellent service team.”

Prior to the robot installation, the Great Canadian Bean Co. assigned multiple workers to palletize bags.

ABB, which has the world’s largest installed base of industrial robots, worked with Automation Project Group to install an ABB 640 four-axis palletizing robot at the Great Canadian Bean Co. The robot has a 352-lb handling capacity, enabling it to handle full bags of beans, and palletizes to a height of 8½ ft. In addition, it operates with user-friendly software, so that employees can easily program pallet patterns offline on a separate personal computer and then download them to the controller.

The installation began in August 2005 and lasted 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 that rotates the bags 90° before laying them on their side. The bags then travel across a metering belt that ensures that bags are gapped before entering the pickup roller conveyor. The ABB robot picks up the bags using a clamshell-style gripper and places them in the pallet pattern selected by the operator.

Rave Reviews for the Robot

Since the robot installation, production at the Great Canadian Bean Co. has not changed, since it is a function of the local bean crop. However, 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, pallets are made much more quickly, and damage to palletized bags has been reduced to zero, allowing the company to deliver more products to its customers in a shorter amount of time.

The Great Canadian Bean Co.
palletizes products in a variety of patterns and sizes to meet customer needs.

“The biggest surprise was how easy it was for the operators to program the robot for different pallet configurations,” said 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 of the robot that was not calculated in advance was the reduction in broken and damaged bags. The bags must be loaded onto the pallet in tight configurations so that they do not hang over the edge. If the bags stick out too far, they brush against the entrance of overseas containers and are broken. Before the robot was installed, claims were filed for damaged product. Now, the robot places the bags precisely and correctly as required, eliminating customer claims.

The robot has also helped reduce labor costs. When seasonal employees left the job, the company did not replace them because the robot was able to fulfill their duties.

And the robot has been a big hit with nearby residents. Not surprisingly, the Great Canadian Bean Co.’s facilities are located in the countryside, where the beans are located. During the winter months, the robot operates in extremely cold temperatures; hence, it is enclosed in its own room with a small heat lamp. However, because the robot is situated in a room instead of a cage, the local residents were not able to easily view it. Thus, MacLean put a picture window in the wall, and now, small groups gather occasionally to see the robot at the end of the bagging line.

Ultimately, the Great Canadian Bean Co. has reduced operating costs and is delivering high-quality beans to dinner tables around the world.

In addition to having a large installed base of industrial robots, ABB Inc., Robotics Div. (Auburn Hills, MI), provides robot software, peripheral equipment, and modular manufacturing cells. For more information call 248-391-9000 or visit www.abb.com.