Supplying the brewing, food and beverage industry.

Automating manual handling increases safety in food manufacturing

Blog from L.B Foster

I guess the clue is in the title! If you’re interested in automation and the use of robotics in food manufacturing, then this article is for you. As you’ll appreciate, the food industry is one of the UK’s largest manufacturing sectors, contributing billions of pounds to the UK economy every year. Keeping such a large industry moving requires thousands of employees. But, working in the food manufacturing industry is not without its risks.

According to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), there are a wide number of potential risks working to employees in this sector. In fact, in the period 2019-20, there were 6,935 accidents involving being hit by moving objects, such as plastic banding straps; that’s 11 percent of the total of all reported non-fatal injuries (RIDDOR – Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations).

Automation and machine vision can work together to provide a more granular view of every step in what is often a highly complex process, enhancing quality, as well as improving safety by removing the human element from the equation.

If you’re like me, I’m fortunate enough to work in a sector where the greatest  risk I face is RSI as a result of too many mouse clicks or too long at the keyboard. But for the many thousands whose day (or night) job involves constant physical work, even simple everyday tasks, such as removing retaining straps from pallets of products, have the potential for injury or worse. That’s why what we do at L.B. Foster Automation and Materials Handling is all about increasing safety through the innovative use of technology.

Our robotic solutions contribute directly to  improved levels of operator safety on production lines across the UK. Take for example the work we’re doing with Britvic plc at its soft drinks facility near Rugby. Britvic is the largest supplier of branded still soft drinks, and the number two supplier of branded carbonated soft drinks, in Great Britain. Following the original supply of three debanders as part of £100m investment in new canning lines in 2016, we’re supplying a fourth machine to support their next growth phase.

With almost 100,000 aluminium cans uploaded from pallets onto each of three new canning lines per hour, each line outputs up to 2,000 cans per minute. That’s a lot of pallets that need retaining straps removed.  In the dark old days before L.B. Foster intervened, each pallet’s plastic retaining strap was removed manually by an operative with a knife, which is both time consuming and runs the risk of repetitive stress injury, as well as possible whiplash from the straps as tension is released when each strap is cut.

Our high performance, highly engineered automatic vertical pallet strap removal system now automates this task, which is a win/win in terms of safety, productivity and improved working conditions for Britvic’s operatives. The system automatically locates, cuts and removes vertical plastic straps from the pallets. The system can process metal, plastic and wooden top frames and has a cycle time as low as 60 seconds per pallet, removing up to eight straps simultaneously.

One feature we are particularly proud of is the system’s ability to capture straps using a reliable and flexible granulation system. This reduces our environmental footprint using an in-built hopper to collect plastic retaining straps. These are shredded and the resultant granules sent for recycling.

And we don’t stand still. Recent improvements to our original design include the system’s operation, maintenance and overall aesthetics. The working head can now be lowered for ease of maintenance access, making high level platforms redundant. The main support legs are configured so that they can be mounted from one side of the pallet conveyor. Finally, the mounting of the main head allows the machine to be flexible and able to process a wide variety of pallet types.

Investing in safety takes many forms – from training and personal development to the introduction of automated equipment that removes the risk from a specific process. The L.B. Foster automatic vertical strap removal system is just such a system and it’s brilliant to see it in use at Britvic.

If our work for Britvic has whet your appetite for more, message me on LinkedIn and let’s start a conversation.

Jessica Brindley

Jessica Brindley

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