Ireland-based robotics manufacturer Tekpak Automation has joined forces with Schneider Electric to reach an innovative solution for high speed delicate product packing for the food industry. The collaboration has led to a new generation of robotic system for Tekpak using Schneider Electric’s PacDrive P4 robot mechanics

Tekpak specialises in the design and build of robotic loading, product collation and case packing systems, developing custom-built solutions for high volume food and pharmaceutical manufacturers. Having successfully developed its own range of controls and software for its two and three-axis robotic systems, the company responded to a specific customer requirement for a packing line capable of high-speed delicate product handling. The Tekpak Packman Vision is a Robotic Loading Cell specifically designed for packaging applications. It is fully integrated with vision systems using Schneider Electric’s PacDrive P4 robots and controls, with each robot capable of packing around 150 units per minute. In addition multi-pick grippers and/or multiple robots can be used in the cell to reach very high product rates of over 1,000 per minute.

The previous robots developed in-house by Tekpak have been designed for large payloads, typically with large multi-pick grippers weighing up to 20 to 30kg comprising groupings of between five and 20 products using large multi-pick grippers at a rates of 40 to 50 cycles per minute. The new application required a Delta robot capable of working at high speed, picking small individual and variably shaped items randomly orientated on the conveyor.

John Kehoe of Tekpak says: “With Schneider Electric’s PacDrive we found a number of features which were suited to this application and Schneider Electric’s communications protocols made it very easy to integrate their products with our vision system and collation conveyors.”

For Tekpak, one of the key features of Schneider Electric’s PacDrive is that it is made from stainless steel. With a focus on the food and pharmaceutical industries, Tekpak already makes around 90 per cent of its packaging systems in stainless steel, a strong selling point as Kehoe explains: “Even in environments where it is not mandatory, many of our customers prefer equipment to be made from stainless steel to avoid the risk of foreign bodies such as microscopic paint chips or glass fibres reaching the product. The application involved unwrapped food product, so stainless steel was preferred for the robotics. While price can inhibit the use of stainless steel, the Schneider Electric PacDrive enabled us to achieve a cost-effective solution.”

The PacDrive P4 Delta robot is made almost entirely of stainless steel and has been certified by Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute IPA as suitable for use in Class 6 cleanrooms in accordance with ISO 146-44. The entire unit is suitable for washdown up to IP 65 and so is also suitable for the dairy and meat industries.

As well as the PacDrive P4 robots, Tekpak’s Packman Vision incorporates two Schneider Electric C400 PacDrive motion controllers, ISH motors in the robot axes, two Magellis colour touchscreens and Altivar low power AC drives. The entire packing cell, including tray de-nesters, carton erectors, carton closers and transfer mechanisms are controlled by the C400s via distributed I/O OTB modules. In operation, the PacDrive P4 robots pick from in-feeding vision conveyors which are tracked using the encoder tracking features of the C400s. The upstream cameras identify the exact size, shape and position of the items on the conveyor, storing this information in a FIFO buffer so that the robots do not interfere with the camera’s view of the conveyor line. The required packing formats for 12 different tray/carton formats are stored in the Magellis touchscreens and this enables the C400s to know where the incoming items need to be placed in transverse travelling box locations.

Dave Collier from Schneider says: “The scalable PacDrive offers all the functionalities of PLCs and motion and robotic control required for cost-effective, integrated and modular automation solutions. The system was designed primarily for high performance packaging and production machines and its use by Tekpak.”

Tekpak has integrated seven independent vision systems with the C400 controllers, six of the cameras being used for product identification and the seventh as a quality inspection tool at the end of the packing process. The system achieves a positioning accuracy of better than 1mm.

Kehoe says: “We were impressed by the partnership approach taken by Schneider Electric. The team was able to demonstrate specific OEM packaging machinery expertise and we received a high level of local co-engineering support. This was further extended when three of our own engineers were trained directly at the Schneider Electric OEM solutions training centre in Germany. We undertook this project for a long-standing customer who was looking to gain competitive advantage by introducing significant production efficiencies. The support we received helped us deliver the level of innovation necessary for this project and so further cement this relationship.”