Steck is pleased to play its part in this step forward for the industry, having engaged with its customers and responded to their needs. As Paul Goddard, Sales Director at Steck explains "We know our customers need portable robotics that can be pushed up to the production line, switched on and left to get on with a task, taking up little more line space than an operator. The robots need to be rugged to survive the environment, simple to operate, simple to clean, simple to maintain and above all installed at a price that pays back within a year."
After almost 20 years of building depositors for the food industry, Steck were very familiar with the sort of environment that their new robot would have to survive in, and quickly realised that the task needed a 'clean sheet' approach. The challenge for Steck was to design a model that improves on general purpose robots that are more commonly used in the car industry, but do not have a strong record in the food production environment. Mike Wilkinson, Managing Director at Steck, observes, "It's not just about taking a general purpose robotic arm and making it waterproof - a much more fundamental rethink is needed. We realised quickly that if we wanted a robot and vision system to do that sort of task, we had no option but to design and build it from scratch."
In mid-2019, the first two Steck DR2 robots went online at a large sandwich manufacturer in the north of England. The robots' task sounds simple: place a stripe of starch onto a wrap as they pass by at 60 per minute in two lanes on a conveyor. In practice, however, things are a bit more complicated; the wraps are not uniform in size and they aren't placed regularly on the belt, so the Steck 'RuggedEye' vision system picks out the wraps in real time and tells the robot over the CANBUS Network where best to place the starch stripe. So far 11 million wraps have been starched, with only routine machine maintenance being provided by the customer's existing engineering team.
The next challenge presented by the same sandwich maker required a reconfiguration of the DR2 to operate in a very restricted space available on the production line, and that's where the DR3 Robot was launched. It uses all of the same control and drive train as the DR2, but comes with a reduced working area and physical size. Perfect for the tricky task of picking up half a cut sandwich and placing it neatly on top of the bottom half at 50 sandwiches a minute, a process known as 'match halving' in the sandwich industry. "There had been attempts by another supplier at match halving using an industrial robot, but that had never progressed much past demonstration runs," said Goddard. Previous attempts had been judged as a massive overkill of frames and guards and flailing robot arms, while missing the finesse and flexibility required to accurately compensate for the misalignment and separation of the two halves of the sandwich.
After extensive development of the vision system AI algorithms, the first Steck DR3 match half application went online just as the first Covid-19 lockdown began in 2020. "The first pair of DR3s went live with little fuss or ceremony," said Wilkinson, adding "and they have been online ever since, quietly getting on with their job. The best compliment is when someone comments how simple it all looks. We know how much is going on under the hood and the effort put in to getting it right, but they do make the task look easy." The first pair have now been joined by a further 10 Steck DR3s.
The next challenging installations are for the process of sandwich 'wet lidding', the process of assembling the top half of a sandwich that is already coated with a spread onto the bottom half. The end effector Steck uses for this is a patent-applied for device that grips and inverts the slice, utilising the high acceleration capability of the DR3 Robot. Again, the Vision System is critical, as the bread and sandwich positions on the conveyor can vary considerably. A further 30 DR3 Robots are on order, and currently being built and the first of them will go live shortly in the world's largest sandwich factory. This will also see the first application of Steck's latest Vision-based safety system that will further reduce the size and complexity of traditional guarding required.
Talking to our customers and responding to their needs has always been a central part of the mission at Steck, and we are proud of the progress we have made. Says one customer, "We look for suppliers who deliver timely, robust, fully compliant build of equipment which Steck has always delivered for us. With the introduction of the DR Delta Robots into our factories to complement Steck's depositors as well, we will strive ahead even further knowing we will have Steck equipment in these areas delivering for us what they say they will."
And what next on the list of applications? Paul Goddard says, "The list of possible uses in the food industry isn't limitless, but there are many tasks that can be automated in this way that bring about real labour saving. This is important at a time when it seems increasingly difficult for our customers to find staff wanting to take on these highly repetitive jobs. So far we are just 50 robots into an automation program that will see many more applications unveiled in the food industry."