Efficiency and precision in the management of 120,000 eggs per hour
15. January 2019
Avícola El Ángel, a farm located in Toledo (Spain) that produces 110 million eggs every year, has implemented through Innovantia® an end-of-line multiformat robotic solution based on 3 Yaskawa robots (two MPL80 and one MPL160), assisted by vacuum generation and a mechanical claw, capable of palletising the entire production of the egg and poultry farm. The robots, which handle around 120,000 eggs per hour coming from both automatic and manual packing, safely and delicately prepare the product in the different formats offered, leaving them ready to be sent to the commercial circuit.
Among the main benefits of the solution provided to the Avícola El Ángel process are the increase in the welfare of the operators, who since the introduction of the robots no longer have to handle loads at the end of the line or execute highly repetitive movements that have a negative impact on their health; the reduction of faults at the end of the line and the improvement in the quality of the presentation of the final product, thanks to the precise handling offered by the robots, and the reduction of the time-to-market, also being able to manage the peaks or troughs of production simply, by reprogramming of the robots.
About de customer
Avícola El Ángel is an egg grading farm located in Cedillo del Condado (Toledo - Spain) that with a team of 25 professionals produces 110 million eggs each year. 90% of its production is for the national market, mostly large supermarkets and other food product lines, and 10% for the foreign market, mainly in Europe.
Contrary to the common belief that there is a lack of technology in the agricultural sector, this collecting farm executes a highly automated and controlled production process. The high regulatory demands on products for human consumption, as well as the self-imposed standards used by the company itself as regards the suitable treatment of the 600,000 laying hens that are housed at the facility, have driven a process of digitalisation and traceability in the production that starts from the control of all the health and comfort variables.
As Antonio García, veterinarian and Director of Quality and Production at El Ángel, explains, the production process has three phases: the first corresponds to the facilities where the hens are housed, with sensory solutions that control all the health and comfort levels of the animals, such as temperature, movements, food, drink etc. Due to the use of technology, a single operator is able to control a pool of 133,000 hens.
The second focuses on the feed mill as the egg-poultry farm has its own feed production plant. Through a central computer it configures and manages the production of the recipes, takes the nutrients that the birds need from the different silos available and dispatches them to the hens’ facilities with total visibility and control of the operations.
The third phase of the process takes place in the sorting machine, where through artificial vision solutions the product is first screened - dirty eggs, with cracks and other defects that make them unsuitable for human consumption - are separated and then the automatic weighing is carried out, which grades them into three sizes, XL, L and M, and then they are immediately packed in the necessary format, which can be blister packs of 30, 20, 10, 12 or 6 units. Right after this process, the blister packs go to the conveyor belt. During the run, most of the formats have just been packed with a shrink-wrapping machine, although there are blister packs that are still processed manually because of the particular nature of their format. Here, at the point where it seemed most difficult to apply an improvement, given the complexity of the handling to be performed, is where Yaskawa’s technology comes into play.
In order to complete its automated production cycle, Avícola El Ángel needed to optimise the final handling process. This task had no shortage of challenges. First of all, workers' health was a priority. This part of the process had always been managed manually, with the consequent physical and psychological stress caused by the tension generated by the need for extra-careful handling of the product. “We proposed a radical improvement in the welfare of workers” explains Antonio Garcia. “We needed to change from a completely manual process to a digitised one to protect our employees.”
Secondly, there was a need to regulate fluctuations in production. Depending on their age, each hen lays different amounts of eggs throughout their life. “There are peaks of production where hens lay more eggs, that are very difficult to manage manually. It's really unmanageable,” explains Ismael Huete, general manager of Innovantia®, the company involved in the project. “It’s utterly unmanageable.” Added to this is the large number of units usually managed, pace and repetition levels that cannot be handled by one person. “Bear in mind that such an installation can handle from 81,000 eggs/hour to 162,000 eggs/hour. And sorting processes that exceed 200,000 eggs/hour are already being evaluated,” stresses Huete. And all this taking the delicacy of the product into account to avoid both visible breaks, such as those of the outer shell, as well as internal ones, in the yolk.
To this rate, thirdly, we can add the multitude of possible formats. "The eggs can be of three classes (XL, L, M) and can be packed in different formats: in bulk, in trays of 20 or 30 units on pallets, in bulk in boxes, in formats of 6, 10 or 12 units shrink-wrapped and palletised... The possibilities are infinite,” says Antonio García. The demands of El Ángel's customers are behind this multiplicity: serving large supermarkets means having to standardise different types of final formats, and also having to be agile when it comes to changing them if the market so requires.
All this work was also carried out in installations that limited the technological possibilities. “We had little room for manoeuvre because of the installations. The sorting machine is where it is, it’s the size it is, the entrance chamber for the products gives us limited capacity...,” explains García. “Traditionally, these types of grading centres are not configured planning for the implementation of a complete and automated ‘lay-out’, but are based on an automated sorting machine with the other manual handling performed by operators,” adds Ismael Huete. “Since this is a production that has to be completely refrigerated, the heights occupied by this type of installation are also very limiting.”
All these challenges were added to by the change of culture and the need to improve the technological skills of the professionals in the handling phase: “Since we did not have an automation culture at this stage of the process, we had to correct a general lack of knowledge of robot technology management. Intensive and specific training of the users in the correct use of the installation in order to get the most out of it was the only alternative,” sources from Innovantia® confirmed.
There was no shortage of fears about this change of concept, from manual to fully automated handling. Antonio García explains some of the initial sources of reticence: “We were concerned that it wouldn’t work in the sense that there were more stops than there already were manually and 120,000 eggs per hour would be too much volume for the robot’s capacity.”
Given the extreme delicacy required by the product in order to avoid breakage, the technology implemented had to be able to move the product at high speeds, but at the same time with highly controlled and smooth accelerations. It was necessary to combine simplicity in the installation (defined by the structure of the factory), agility in the handling (defined by the volume of eggs to be managed) and delicacy in the treatment (defined by the product itself). Yaskawa’s technology could meet all these requirements.
Thus it was that the engineering integrator of the technological solution, Innovantia®, proposed the implementation of three MPL 80 and MPL 160 palletising robots assisted by vacuum generation and a mechanical claw. The objective was to make a qualitative leap in the final handling of the product.
Together with the customer, a lay-out design was drawn up for the complete installation in which the solution was proposed and the different options were evaluated. Once it was determined that the MPL 80 and MPL 160 were the most suitable robots, the entire installation was simulated at the Innovantia® workshops for testing and adjustment.
Once the testing phase was completed, the customer was invited to review and validate the solution. “Following this testing and validation process allows us to minimise assembly and commissioning times, something highly valued by the customer, since commissioning remains an inconvenience for the smooth running of daily production,” explains Ismael Huete in relation to the work methodology.
After this process, the robots were dismantled in workshops and were reinstalled in one working day, this time on the real production line, and a final validation was carried out to detect any needs that could possibly have been overlooked. In the case of this project, the adjustments were at the programming level: compressed air pressure, position of the boxes, etc. Finally, specific training was given to the operators in relation to issues related to operation and maintenance.
The entire project lasted 6 months, and it only took 3 weeks to go from the test phase to having the robots fully operational on the sorting machine.
Results of the installation and customer benefits
The results were immediate. The minimum production ratios set by the customer, equivalent to the manual handling carried out to date, were met from the very first moment and the process was executed with zero breakages. From this point onwards, everything would be improved: an increase in the volume of handling, an improvement in the final presentation of the product, etc.
At present, Avícola El Ángel manages an average of 120,000 eggs per hour in a more efficient way and with a very high level of quality in the presentation of the final product. Robotic handling has allowed a drastic reduction in failures such as breakage or misplacement: “With robots, everything is very homogeneous, a good presentation is offered to the customer with a reduced production time,” clarifies Antonio García. “The reality is that the egg is a product that is very difficult to add value to and through the incorporation of robots we have managed to complete the automation cycle of our processes and differentiate ourselves from our competitors,” he explains.
Along with this, the welfare of operators has increased significantly: there has been a considerable reduction in accidents at work and absenteeism, and the personnel have a better attitude towards operations as they have had more rest before working. “Performance has been improved,” confirm sources from El Ángel. The introduction of robots has not led to massive layoffs either, but rather there has been a redistribution of personnel, who are now engaged in more valuable tasks such as surveillance. “The robots need a high level of production so the work of the operators is even more essential. The employees are now located in other parts of the production chain, in other operations, above all in quality.”
At the technological level, suggests Ismael Huete, the success of the solution's design has to do with Yaskawa’s technological proposal. “The access to the fifth axis allowed us to solve the added difficulty of the flanges in the boxes in an ingenious way, and its design has been optimised to be installed in smaller surfaces and at reduced heights. In addition, being able to move more product at the same time, 13 dozen at a time, allows us to run the process 13 times slower, thus protecting the integrity of the product.” Both Ismael Huete and Antonio García agree that the choice of the technology of one of the world’s leading robotics companies was key: “The reliability and robustness of the Yaskawa equipment, both mechanically and electronically, gives us the peace of mind that this type of process requires,” says Huete.
The installation is now completely independent of the integrator and easily manageable by the customer. “Today we are accompanying El Ángel from a back-up position to give it support on specific issues and to supply it with consumable materials or spare parts that are needed as a consequence of wear and use.” For this type of installation, he explains, the focus is on offering inspection services and preventive maintenance plans.
Regarding its collaboration with Yaskawa Iberica, Innovantia® explains that their work together has been excellent: “The support we receive in our area and in the sectors we work in is very good, both commercially and technically. We always get an immediate response.”
Today, on the verge of three years of operation, the installation is at full capacity and the customer and its market are fully satisfied with it. For the future, Avícola El Ángel is already thinking about how to provide an automated response to new consumer trends, such as the production of free-range eggs with hens that are a long way from the grading point. The market is advancing and the egg and poultry farm will continue to respond to its customers' demands with full support from technology.