From pick-and-pack to palletization, Master's Gallery Foods relies on flexible robotics systems from Quest Industrial to streamline end-of-line packaging throughput at its six Wisconsin cheese maturation facilities.
Flexible Robotics Facilitates High-Speed Cheese Packaging at Masters Gallery Foods
Jim McMahon for | Quest Industrial a division of ProMach
Behind many of the most well-known private-label and store brands of cheese and cheese products sold in North American supermarkets is one of the country's largest cheese maturation and cheese converting processors. Supplying more than 250 million pounds of cheese annually to grocery chains, wholesalers, restaurants and distributors, Wisconsin-based Masters Gallery Foods maintains one of the largest privately-held cheese inventories in the United States.
The company's extensive product line includes American favorites like mild and aged Cheddars; combination cheeses like Colby Jack and Monterey Jack with Peppers; Italian stretched-curd cheeses such as Mozzarella and Provolone, and hard-grating Parmesan, Romano and Asiago; specialty cheeses including Brie, Gouda and Swiss; and processed cheeses blended to deliver a consistent texture and flavor. These cheeses come from producers, and arrive in bulk at Masters Gallery Foods' facilities where they are aged in six temperature-controlled warehouses, then converted, cut, packaged and shipped throughout North America for retail, foodservice and industrial use.
Although each cheese ages, shreds and cuts differently, only premier cheeses leave the company's facilities.
"Our passion is for quality cheese," said Mark Wirtz, Engineering Manager at Masters Gallery Foods. "This starts with assuring quality, consistency and reliability of our cheese suppliers. Each and every vat of cheese that comes through our doors is personally tasted, smelled and tested by one of our 14 licensed cheese graders to ensure it has the compositional and sensory attributes to meet the highest standards. Our processes ensure that quality cheeses and custom blends will meet our customers’ needs. That means only the exact age, body, flavor, color and performance of cheese will be cleared for release to our customers."
For retail markets, Masters Gallery Foods produces hundreds of cheese products in the form of slices, bars, shreds, chunks and sticks, packaged in pouches, loaves and tubs. For foodservice, five- and ten-pound packages of shreds, dices, cubes, slices and loaves are prepared. To service its industrial customers – for cut-and-wrap operators, food processors, cheese ingredient makers and finished food manufacturers – the company provides six-pound, forty-pound and 640-pound cheese blocks under its in-house Wisconsin Premium™ brand. Multiple storage facilities allow Masters Gallery Foods to house extensive inventories of cheese, helping its customers manage risk, hedge the dairy market, maintain fixed pricing and procure just-in-time inventories.
"We have built our market share over the past 46 years on preparing customized cheese products for our customers," added Wirtz. "Many times they will provide the cheese and want it converted into a different product, a unique shred or cut, or unique packaging that has never been tried before. For customers looking for a certain taste of cheese, we will work with our cheese producers to come up with a blend that works for them."
Flexible Robotics Support End-of-Line Packaging Throughput
Managing this volume and diversity of product requires highly specialized automation able to adapt flexibly to changes in product runs.
"To support this market need for customized product, we have to push our automation as far as we can, and make it do things that it was not designed to do," continued Wirtz. "We are always redesigning our machinery. Our automated systems from the onset are very unique, and originally built so they can be modified with minimal difficulty."
This is particularly important with the company's end-of-line packaging systems, where maintaining consistent, high throughput is critical to keeping upstream processes moving. Each of the company's six maturation facilities employs sophisticated robotics for both case packing and palletizing.
Designed by Quest Industrial (Quest) – a manufacturer of industrial automation equipment focusing on robotics and vision-guidance solutions across food, dairy and many other industries – these robotic systems are unique in their capability for precision gripping and placement at high speeds, as well as their flexibility to adapt in real time to changes in product mix.
"Quest understands our challenges," explained Wirtz. "The company has been building robotics systems for our end-of-line packaging for the past ten years, specifically, robotic case packers and robotic palletizers. These are highly customized systems built to our requirements, but with tremendous flexibility to accommodate our need for modification of the equipment in-house."
Quik Pick QP200 Robotic Case Packers
"Each of the case packers is unique for the process it is designed to handle," said Wirtz. "But fundamentally, we require the case packers to have extreme flexibility. We are using Quest's Quik Pick QP200 robotic case packers in our plants. Essentially, the robot picks up an item from an accumulation conveyor and places it into a case. An example of one of our applications – the robot needs to be capable of picking up super small cheese items that weigh less than one ounce, and then pick up a package that is bulky and weighs two pounds. This level of flexibility is what is needed for our case packing processes."
Quik Pick QP200 robotic case packer. (Image courtesy Quest Industrial)
The Quik Pick system is a high-speed robotic case packer that is quick, accurate and compact. A main differentiating point is its flexibility. Through its touchscreen HMI and custom software, it can be configured for product in-feed rates from 20 to more than 400 pieces per minute.
"This robotic case packer accepts a wide range of product types, sizes and textures," said Aaron Philips, Vice President of Automation at Quest. "It provides flexible options for custom orientation of cheese products, such as: pile stacks, base stacks, random cuts, shingle stacks, 2 – 3 stacks and twin stacks."
"The system can handle product weights from 1/2 oz. to 20 lbs." added Grinnell. "Supporting quality inspection, it provides automated visual inspection and product weight verification for the many different cheese products running through the lines at the Masters Gallery Foods' facilities."
Simplifying Robotic Palletizing
Masters Gallery Foods has nine robotic palletizers in operation within its six maturation facilities. These are used for end-of-line finished palletizing of cases before stretch wrapping and movement into chilled storage. All of these palletizers were developed by Quest working directly with the engineering team at Masters Gallery Foods. Three of these Boxed-Bot® robotic palletizers were just recently installed at the company's new plant, a section of which has been designed based upon the Toyota Production System (TPS).
"We are going into the initial phases of kicking off our own operational excellence plan, which we call the Island of Excellence, modeled off of the TPS," added Wirtz. "This new plant produces various products of sliced cheeses. We have installed three Quest Boxed-Bot robotic palletizers that have unique capabilities which support our Island of Excellence plan."
One of these features is an over/under capability for movement of pallets within the palletizing cell. A forklift sets a pallet on the infeed conveyor that moves it in towards the robot. The pallet is elevated about 18 inches, once the palletizing is done, then the completed pallet is ejected back over the top of the conveyor to the start of the infeed for pick up with a forklift. With palletizer speeds of over 30 cycles per minute, this permits the forklift operator to wait for palletization to be completed without having to make a return trip.
Another feature is the integration of a custom-designed foam gripper, utilizing a foam pad to compensate for top-of-case irregularities. Traditional robotic suction cups have limitations on how many cups can actually be secured to the top of a box. When moving at high velocity, the case can become distorted, or, if the suction cups happen to fall on a case seam or distorted flap, the vacuum seal can be broken and the box can be sent flying. The foam pad eliminates these issues.
"Without the foam gripper, it would limit the products that the palletizer actually can run," continued Wirtz. "Some of the cases would need to be hand stacked by manual labor. The foam gripper makes for a more reliable pick. This reduced the mis-picks and the slowdowns on the line caused by them."
"The need to have a robotic palletizer that can handle 50 different case types is quite unusual," explained Wirtz. "Most can handle just a fraction of case variations, but these Boxed-Bot robotic palletizers we have in our plants can handle any case size. The palletizers also have the ability to change the box count. The robot has two zones of vacuum, so it can pick up one box or two boxes, or it can do two groups of two – four boxes together, limited by lifting almost 100 lbs. on every pick."
Boxed-Bot robotic palletizer. (Image courtesy Quest Industrial)
The robotic palletizers installed at Masters Gallery Foods give operators more functionality to design and produce exact robotic palletizing patterns for variations of packaging with different product types. One that allows for on-the-fly changes to box and package sizes and patterns, permitting easy changeovers from product to product without the need for reprogramming. Behind this functionality is Quest's QBox® robotic palletizing software.
The software makes it easy to drag-and-drop to change box or packaging patterns (such as chimney, interlock and uniform patterns) and sizes; select, rotate or flip layers; change box length, width and height; adjust pallet sizes or types; account for label-out or label-in orientations; and box/packaging rotation.
QBox robotic palletizing software. (Image courtesy Quest Industrial)
Specific boxes or packages can be selected and slightly moved into more exact positions, or change their order, to position them tightly up against adjoining boxes and packages. And custom edge detection allows for maximum stacking efficiency.
"Palletizing operators at Masters Gallery Foods can easily create new patterns using the HMI touch screen," added Grinnell. "Intuitive screens perform all machine set-up, product changeover and diagnostic functions. The HMI screen is designed for simple yet comprehensive access to all aspects of the palletizer functionality, including automatic and custom manual operations, pattern selection and programming, back-up, recovery operations, safety status, and maintenance logs."
"For an operator not experienced in robotics programming, to create a new palletizing program and modify it as needed on the fly is a considerable advantage for our operations," continued Wirtz. "We no longer have the need for an engineering programmer to put in all the code. This is a unique and revolutionary aspect of these palletizers."
By integrating versatile and intuitive robotic case packing and palletizing, Masters Gallery Foods has enabled a new level of flexibility and efficiency throughout its maturation plants.
"This has enabled more options for customized case and pallet configurations, faster changeovers for different packaging runs, and reduced downtime, with more consistent end-of-line throughput," said Wirtz. "It is helping us move closer towards achieving our Island of Excellence goals."
About Masters Gallery Foods, Inc.
Since its founding in 1974, Masters Gallery Foods has grown to service many of the nation’s grocery chains, wholesalers, restaurants and distributors with a full line of cheese and cheese-related products. The company also specializes in the procurement, aging and distribution of bulk cheeses at a national level. The Masters Gallery family is 900+ employees strong and growing.
For more information, contact Mark Wirtz, Engineering Manager, Masters Gallery Foods, Inc., PO Box 170, Plymouth, WI 53073; email firstname.lastname@example.org
About Quest Industrial
Quest is a manufacturer of turnkey industrial automation equipment focusing on robotics and vision-guidance serving highly demanding markets such as food, beverage, dairy, and others needing to optimize floor space, expand operations with accuracy and consistency, and improve overall production line flexibility and efficiency.
Many of its packaging solutions meet industry specific requirements with specialized tooling, software, and protective coatings designed for dairy, produce, and other markets. The company's unique robotic solutions include applications in pick and place, cup filling, knife cutting, vacuum sealing, case erecting, tray forming, case packing, palletizing, vision and verification systems, and much more, including bundling multiple application technologies into a single robotic packaging cell.
For more information, contact Naomi Holdvogt, Director, Marketing, End of Line at Quest Industrial/ProMach; 4750 County Road 13 NE, Alexandria MN 56308; Phone 320-852-7705; email naomi.holdvogt@promachbuilt.
ProMach is a family of best-in-class packaging solution brands serving manufacturers of all sizes and geographies in the food, beverage, pharmaceutical, personal care, and household and industrial goods industries. ProMach brands operate across the entire packaging spectrum: filling and capping, flexibles, pharma, product handling, labeling and coding, and end of line. ProMach also provides Performance Services, including integrated solutions, design/build, engineering services, and productivity software to optimize packaging line design and deliver maximum uptime.
The content & opinions in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of RoboticsTomorrow
Quest Industrial LLC
We are an Authorized FANUC Robotic Integrator specializing in cutting edge technology. Quest can provide solutions that make sense for your company by helping achieve production goals affordably, increasing profits, saving floor space, and improving safety. Applications include: Various Food & Beverage Equipment Pick & Place Machine Load & Unload Palletizing & DePalletizing Box & Case Erecting / Sealing Ultrasonic Cutting Knife Packaging Equipment Water Jet Cutting Sorting Vision Inspection
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Boxed Bot QBox Software from Quest
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