Earthbound Farm automates clamshell packaging with ClamPAC

Earthbound Farm is America’s largest grower, packer and shipper of organic produce and is widely regarded as an innovative industry leader.

When looking to change its clamshell packaging presentation to a more environmentally friendly version, Earthbound also decided to automate its clamshell case packing operation, which had previously been manual. The system needed to be gentle enough to handle its new packaging format while increasing efficiency.

In April 2012, the company installed four Adept ClamPAC robotic systems from Adept Technology to case pack clamshells.

“We explored several suppliers offering robotic systems. Adept was the only one we found that had a product that could withstand our rigorous sanitation routine,” said Joe Torquato, Director of Engineering at Earthbound Farm. “Our new robotic packaging systems improve the consistency of our throughput, which helps position us for continued growth.

“The technology is gentle and accurate; it reduces product damage and enhances the presentation of our clamshells in the case,” Torquato said. “It helps improve our work environment by eliminating a highly repetitive task. The labour cost savings give us the ability to make this change that has widespread benefits.”

Adept says the ClamPAC is the first fully integrated robotic solution in the world to be pre-engineered to case pack clamshells. Adept’s packaging solutions group modifies each standardised modular system to specific client needs before delivery. The company says this reduces the client’s total cost of ownership by minimising integration complexity and deployment time while providing the flexibility, dexterity and speed of a world-class robotic solution.

“Food processors like to find a single source supplier that handles the entire process,” said Torquato. “Adept took on that accountability.

“They handled everything including our empty boxes. They learned all our SKUs and became very intimate with our process. They set the systems up to handle our clamshells and each case packing configuration. They integrated their systems with our plant control network so we can control the operation remotely and gather data for reporting purposes. The integration went very smoothly.”

Torquato says the ClamPAC handles the clamshells more gently than the labourers ever did and much more gently than Earthbound’s old drop door case packers. Earthbound’s clamshells used to have a shrink band, which the company wanted to eliminate so they weren’t using PVC. The new clamshell lids are sonically welded to the tub and feature an easy-open perforation. The ClamPAC is gentle enough to lift the clamshell by its lid and not break the easy-open perforation.

This is due, in part, to the machine’s SoftPIC grippers. The grippers are selected specifically to suit each client’s product range and are made of soft silicon that conforms to the shape of the clamshell and provides a direct vacuum path to the product. The grippers can be changed in less than two minutes for lines that handle multiple clamshell sizes or designs.

“The ClamPAC systems nest the flanges of the clamshells during case packing. This keeps the clamshells in a better position so they are less prone to damage during transportation. It also allows us to put the same number of clamshells into a smaller box, which reduces packaging materials,” explained Torquato.

The first four ClamPAC systems at Earthbound Farm are case packing 5 oz clamshells filled with an assortment of washed lettuces into six- and eight-count cases. “ClamPAC tracks the box coming into the system and actually begins to fill it while it’s still in motion. That’s one way the system achieves its very high speeds while maintaining such gentle handling,” said Torquato.

“The Adept ClamPAC systems have been very successful,” concluded Torquato. “We wanted an integrated, turnkey system that would be easy to start up. We wanted the systems to be easy for our technicians to operate. And we wanted to achieve significant speeds and experience exceptional uptime. The Adept systems have delivered.”

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