Robotic cell helps production to sprout

SCOTTISH Borders-based vegetable processor, Drysdales, is said to have become the first UK produce firm to automate its sprout crate loading operation in a move which could future-proof the business against potential labour shortages following Brexit.

The company is already reaping the benefits of investing in Brillopak’s UniPAKer robotic cell at its facility in Cockburnspath, Berwickshire, which can load bags of sprouts into crates at speeds in excess of 75 packs per minute.  

Drysdales’ farming & facilities director Ian McLachlan explained, “No-one else is using a machine like this to pack sprouts into crates; this investment fits with our business philosophy of harnessing innovation in farming and production methods in order to stay at the top of our game and deliver the best quality produce and service to our customers.”

Drysdales grows 50,000 tonnes of fresh vegetables – mainly swedes, sprouts and leeks – a year for British supermarkets. It supplies sprouts all year round.

At the start of 2019, Drysdales embarked on a project to install a fully automatic sprout packing line, comprising a vertical bagging machine, metal detector, checkweigher and crate packing system. 

Ian added, “On all of our lines we were relying on manual labour to pack bags of sprouts into crates. However, with Brexit, we foresee a potential labour issue. The time was right to invest in a machine that could perform this task.” 

One challenge was the number of possible pack and crate configurations. Sprouts are packed in a variety of bag sizes, with each retailer having their own requirements. 

“We needed the flexibility to accommodate different pack sizes and crate lengths, whole and half crates, landscape and portrait layouts and different volumes – from 10 packs up to 25 packs to a crate,” Ian added. 

Brillopak’s solution was the UniPAKer robotic pick and place cell that was originally engineered for packing bags of potatoes and apples into crates. Using a four-arm delta robot, the machine is described as ‘ideal’ for vegetables, fruits and salad up to 1kg.

Brillopak director David Jahn added, “We had never tried using the UniPAKer to handle sprouts before, but we knew that we could do the job. The challenges were the same as with potatoes – how do you pick and place flexible bags containing small, moving spherical products at speed with accuracy?” 

Brillopak expalined that two elements of the UniPAKer solution address these challenges: the use of vision technology to recognise and orientate the packs and the design of Brillopak’s suction end-effector. 

David added, “When you are looking to replace labour at the end of a line with robotics, consistency is king, as you have to assume there won’t be anyone there to intervene if the robot stops. 

“Our business is built on designing automation solutions that operate at high speed but with consistency; the key to achieving this is precision control over the product throughout.”