Custom vacuum solution improves pet food pouch unloading
Adelaide-based packaging machine builder HMPS recently partnered with SMC Corporation Australia New Zealand to design and custom fit a new HMPS pouch unloader cell for an export customer in Thailand. Used to unload pouches of pet food from trays, the machine offers high speed in a small footprint. It is the first machine the company has built 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.
“The customer has an old compressor in their factory and requested a solution that is more energy efficient in terms of compressed air,” explained Sergio Palacio, Project Engineer for HMPS. “Compressors can be expensive to replace, and our customer wanted to automate their line without causing unnecessary downtime, additional costs or drastic changes to the rest of the plant”
Based on this brief, HMPS looked to SMC for the vacuum technology necessary to achieve the customer brief. The two companies have worked together for years and Palacio said that 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,” he said. “We looked to deliver a more efficient and powerful solution with a specially designed and engineered vacuum head.”
Jason Sutton, SMC Area Sales Engineer, said that their 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.”
“This was one of many projects where SMC worked with OEM to develop a special ‘fit-to-purpose’ complete solution,” said Vetrov. “The project delivered a custom-made solution as a result of preliminary tests with actual pet food products in order to prove the concept with selected SMC standard vacuum components.
“During the final stage we designed and delivered a bespoke solution with a direct interface to the robotic arm as per HMPS’s specification.”
While the specially engineered vacuum head used in this application is made up of standard SMC vacuum products, the solution has been engineered into a unique multifunctional and energy-efficient vacuum design.
“We needed to increase the speed of the application while factoring in energy savings to help reduce pressure on the compressor,” explained Palacio.
SMC selected the ZH vacuum ejectors and ZP vacuum cups from its 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 while protecting the vacuum system,” said Sutton. “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 health and safety demands. Components for the application were specifically selected to withstand caustic acid washdown.
The latest machine performs far better than its predecessor and has achieved 28% in energy savings.
It is also 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%,” said Palacio.
According to Palacio, the 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,” he 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, biscuits, etc.”
Palacio is pleased to announce 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.”
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