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Machine builder HMPS partnered with the SMC Corporation ANZ to design and custom fit a new HMPS pouch unloader cell for an export customer in Thailand, claimed to be an industry-first of its kind.

The machine is used to unload pouches of pet food from trays. According to a statement from SMC, it is the first machine where a robot is retrofitted with a vacuum head for off-loading pouches of pet food from a retort.

Pouches have increased in popularity over the years as a flexible packaging option and using a vacuum system to handle this packaging option remains the most reliable and trusted solution.

HMPS project engineer Sergio Palacio said the customer had an old compressor in their factory and requested a solution that is more energy efficient in terms of compressed air.

“Compressors can be expensive to replace; our customer wanted to automate their line without causing unnecessary downtime, additional costs or drastic changes to the rest of the plant,” Palacio said.

Fruits of collaboration: The special vacuum head
Fruits of collaboration: The special vacuum head

Based on this brief, HMPS looked to the modern vacuum technology produced and supplied by SMC to help curb customer concerns.

These two companies have worked together for years and Palacio said this project required out-of-the-box thinking and close collaboration.

“We chose SMC’s vacuum products because of their reduced air consumption while offering continuous vacuum where required. We looked to deliver a more efficient and powerful solution with a specially designed and engineered vacuum head,” Palacio said.

SMC area sales engineer Jason Sutton said the two companies’ design departments worked together to deliver an innovative solution.

“From SMC’s side, the design was led by our engineering department in New Zealand, headed up by Sergey Vetrov while I oversaw the project on the ground together with the HMPS team. Our team was proactive, detail orientated and invested in the project,” Sutton said.

Vetrov said this was one of many projects where SMC worked with an OEM to develop a special, fit-to-purpose complete solution.

“This project delivered custom made solution as a result of preliminary tests with actual pet food products to prove concept with selected SMC standard vacuum components,” Vetrov said.

“During the final stage we designed and delivered a bespoke solution with direct interface to the robotic arm as per HMPS’ specification.”

While the specially engineered vacuum head used in this application is made up of standard SMC vacuum products, this solution has been engineered into a unique multi-functional and energy-efficient vacuum design.

“We needed to increase the speed of the application whilst factoring in energy savings to help reduce pressure on the compressor,” Palacio said.

Sutton said SMC selected the ZH vacuum ejectors and ZP vacuum cups from its comprehensive vacuum range for this specific application. “The pouches are wet with traces of chemicals and as such, we used the ZH series to help take away any water and chemicals whilst protecting the vacuum system,” he said.

“The multi-bellow pads fitted in our vacuum cups (ZP series) are made for quick release and reduced consumption. Because there is no chamber, the vacuum response time was immediate, and no air is delivered to a vacuum cup unless it is in use. Here, as soon as the air shuts off, atmospheric pressure enters, and the multi-bellow pads expand like a spring to assist with the easing of pressure and tension, releasing the product immediately.”

HMPS made use of SMC’s IP65 rated stainless steel products for this application to withstand the wet and humid conditions in the factory, and to meet the highest health and safety demands. “Components for this application were specifically selected to withstand caustic acid washdowns”.

The results

According to SMC, the latest machine performs far better than its predecessor and has achieved 28 per cent in energy savings.

It is no secret that every millisecond counts in packaging. “Through the unique combination of a new vision system and SMC’s vacuum head, the customer is enjoying less waste, faster speeds and a reduced cycle time of 15 percent,” Palacio said.

He said this robotic cell can process 576 products per minute and is able to handle four different pouch sizes and four different gravy contents.

“It’s important to note that the gravy affects the shape of the product and the performance of the vacuum head,” Palacio said.

“The vacuum cups used for this application adjust to ensure constant suction when required. This same technology can be applied across an array of products in pouches such as soups, rice, and biscuits.”

Palacio reported that the customer is extremely happy with the results.

“This new vacuum head will be retrofitted on an additional three machines at this same plant and SMC’s special vacuum head will become HMPS’s new standard going forward,” he said.

Vetrov concludes that his team enjoys projects where they can show the full capability of the SMC products and bring out the real innovation they were designed for. His team in New Zealand designed and built the complete solution and offer customised solutions for special applications.

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