New and updated tray handing equipment that performs automated or semi-automated loading of bakery and snack products into trays and baskets, as well as handles bakery trays, baskets, and other reusable distribution containers for finished products, has grown increasingly sophisticated.

The newest generation of tray handling equipment is growing more user-friendly, as well. Automated systems designed for tray handling, and the packing and loading of trays and racks for finished baked goods, are now easier to operate and control due to the implementation of machine learning. “The software works independently of the robot hardware to make programming as easy as operating a smartphone,” says Sean Riley, senior director, media and communications, PMMI, Reston, VA. “Robots have the capability to identify different products for picking, wrapping and stacking, allowing for the efficient creation of customized variety packs.”

The latest equipment reduces or eliminates human interaction on the line, thus reducing production costs for bakery and snack producers. Some systems integrate all facets of distributing, loading, stacking, palletizing, and sanitizing baskets. 

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Apex Motion Control - Baker-Bot

Apex Motion Control, Surrey, British Columbia, offers the Baker-Bot Cobot (collaborative robot) for tray handling. Designed to help bakers automate repetitive tasks, the system can load and unload trays and racks via conveyor from single- or double-rack setups. When using a double-rack setup, the lower part of the frame has an auto lock and unlock feature that is automatically activated when the rack is empty or full.

The Baker-Bot is mobile and versatile, and can be fitted with attachments to meet various applications, and the touch screen tablet is easy to use, according to Martin Riis, director of sales and marketing. “The Baker-Bot does not have to be caged. Built-in sensors automatically detect when humans get close and reduce speed and/or stop until the area is clear.”

Riis says that Baker-Bots are used worldwide for tray handling on conveyor lines such as muffin and cupcake batter pans. They also are used for trays that need to be removed from a conveyor and loaded onto racks before they make their journey to ovens or empty muffin tins that need to be loaded onto conveyors that go direct to deposit and bake. “We have another installation that produces high volumes of biscotti and snack crackers. Two Baker-Bots work independently on tandem lines, with workers doing various tasks around them.”



Benchmark - Tray Handling & Loading System

Benchmark, Statham, GA, a ProMach company, offers a tray handling and loading system for finished products such as crackers or cookies. “This involves the creation of slugs of products, which are loaded into plastic trays and typically overwrapped,” explains Rich Arnold, vice president of sales. “The automatic tray handler delivers precise slug loading from the discharge of a two- or four-lane sandwiching machine, or a distribution system that shingles and coin stacks product before automatically loading the slugs into trays.”



Colborne Foodbotics LLC - Robotic Tray Sorting

Colborne Foodbotics LLC, Lake Forest, IL, recently developed robotic tray sortation technology that reduces the number of employees needed to unload random stacks from incoming trucks and deliver the stacks to the company’s laser-guided sortation systems. “The Robotic Sortation System can read the style and color of individual trays in the stack and sort them to ‘like’ trays for storage,” says Cal Neugent, vice president of automation. “Also, the system can retrieve trays needed for live feed and deliver them to a tray washer.”

Another bakery robotic tray sortation system had different tray dimensions and colors coming back in stacks of random varieties. “Our system provides them with the ability to automatically sort random varieties of trays from incoming stacks and robotically stack the trays by like colors and dimensions for delivery to the washer or tray storage, and to live production as needed,” Neugent explains.

Neugent says that autonomous mobile robotics (AMRs) represent the wave of the future. In fact, Colborne Foodbotics is now integrating AMRs throughout the tray handling process. “AMRs are robotics that can understand and move through their environment without being overseen directly by an operator. Their applications in the tray handling area of bakeries are vast and range from unloading at the dock through locating stacks, as needed, at various points and times during production and finally to delivering palletized stacks of loaded trays to the dock for distribution.”



Douglas Machines Corp. - Tunnel Washers

Douglas Machines Corp., Clearwater, FL, offers conveyorized tunnel washers for trays, baskets and pans. Designed to be operated by one or two people, the systems eliminate hand washing, reduce labor requirements and reduce downtime. They help reduce the microorganisms on surfaces by washing and sanitizing items that may be in constant use in processing plants. “Our systems are easy to use, economical and eco-friendly. All of our machines wash in 150°F and rinse in 180°F for the ideal sanitation of trays,” says Greg Verstrate, sales engineer.



EndFlex - Pick-and-Place & Palletizing Machines

EndFlex, Miami, part of the Paxiom Group, offers pick-and-place and palletizing machines that are frequently used together to place bags, cartons, and containers of snacks and bakery items into trays and cases prior to loading onto pallets for shipping. Automating these end-of-line processes creates labor savings at virtually every step, according to Jorge Perez, vice president of operations.

“Quick tray forming and handling can increase the number of trays available for loading versus manual methods. Also, efficient case packing and sealing optimizes space within the case, leading to savings in shipping costs while ensuring that cases do not open during that process, further decreasing waste,” Perez says.



Rexfab - Empty Basket Distribution System, SR Pack Basket Loader, Basket Stacker and Palletizer

Rexfab, Sherbrooke, Quebec, specializes in automated basket systems designed for commercial bakeries. These systems integrate and automate all facets of distributing, loading, stacking, palletizing, and sanitizing baskets.

Rexfab’s Empty Basket Distribution System features a basket unstacker and denester that automate the process and reduce labor. The basket unstacker can unstack 35 baskets per minute and servomotors provide a reliable system with minimal maintenance requirements. “Our basket unstacker and basket stacker are identical, which requires fewer spare parts,” says Patrice Painchaud, vice president of sales and marketing. The denester uses one arm, driven by servomotors, to reorient cross-nested baskets and reorient them as needed. The system was designed specifically for space efficiency and to fit perfectly with existing basket systems. 

The SR Pack Basket Loader from Rexfab combines basket and box loading within the same machine, and uses non-lifting pattern forming technologies to eliminate product damage. “The system positively controls baskets and boxes during pattern forming and loading using a top temper combined with side plates and fixes, which funnel product patterns in the basket or box continuously and uniformly,” Painchaud adds. 

The Basket Stacker and Palletizer from Rexfab combine two operations: stacking baskets and positioning the basket stacks on a dolly. The system can store up to 20 dollies vertically and automatically feeds the basket stacker for minimum operator intervention. The system also accommodates bakeries that need to stack baskets on the floor. For basket sanitation, the company’s Trash Dump or Rotary Trash Dump removes dry debris before baskets reach the washer. Both solutions collect and dispose of dry debris. 

Painchaud predicts that artificial intelligence (AI) will have a significant impact on tray handling equipment. “We’re continually adding more sensors and cameras to our equipment, while developing AI-driven software that will automatically adjust machine settings to increase speeds, gain efficiencies and reduce maintenance.”