Despite the size of the operation, efficiency, productivity and profitability are hot topics amongst all feed manufacturers. However, the success of the operation hinges on its ability to accurately and cost-effectively deliver the product. At the end of the bagging line, the manual palletizing of bagged feed poses challenges to mills of all sizes. As it becomes more difficult to find employees to staff this labor-intensive and often low-paying position, smaller mills are finding themselves more susceptible to staffing shortages, worker’s compensation claims and impeded output.
“As we see it, about 80 percent of the opportunity is with smaller feed companies,” says Dan Brown, president, Hamer, LLC. “While the large, national mills also invest in automated palletizing systems, the local companies have a better understanding of the potential value-add of improving this portion of their process.”
While not exactly a minor investment — with full systems ranging from $100,000 to more than a million — the prevailing knowledge is that the system easily pays for itself once the cost-saving and improved production variables are taken into consideration. Generally speaking, depending on the mill’s volume, the average return on investment (ROI) for a robotic palletizing system is 2.5 or 3 years.
“ One customer calculated his ROI down to cents per bag and he estimated he’d have it paid off in two years; however, after calculating the bags he ran across it in two years, he realized he actually paid for it in 14 months,” says Brad Hentzen, sales manager, Chantland MHS.
Many of the benefits of a robotic palletizing system seem obvious, but there are several factors a feed mill owner should evaluate on the front end.
Things to consider
The majority of potential buyers will be installing the automated palletizing system into an existing facility. First the vendor will evaluate the constraints of the feed mill’s existing footprint: How high is the ceiling? What’s the square footage? Is the floor of the facility made out of concrete for anchoring the robot?
“Typically we need a minimum of 12 feet of ceiling space, but there are ways to work around that if the rate of the line isn’t too demanding,” explains Brown, adding that 90 percent of Hamer’s palletizing systems go into existing facilities. “Honestly, most of these layouts are less than so it comes down to how creatively you design the in-feed components to match up with existing discharge points.”
According to Steve Spurling, sales manager with Taylor Products Div., Magnum Systems Inc., the robotic palletizer can be adapted to fit virtually any space. “You can pretty much have any variation of incoming lines, orientations of the robotic arm and ways of getting your empty pallet to be filled,” he says.
Next, the vendor will review the bag size and the throughput the client hopes to achieve. A robotic palletizer can be programmed to load anywhere from two bags to 25 50-bags per minute.
“The top speed is actually faster than most feed mills operate,” Brown explains. “We look for an opportunity to consolidate and get two or more lines down to a single source palletizing solution to give a better ROI and it addresses those speed issues so feed mill can maximize the system.”
The stack rate at has a lot to do with the layout and space: “The faster the stacking rate, the more space and length the palletizer requires,” Spurling explains.
While many variables influence the end design, there are many solutions to meet the needs of the individual operation, but the outcome hinges the mill’s throughput, footprint and budget.
Again, many of the specific elements and components will vary on a system-by-system basis – so what features and benefits span systems of all sizes?
The benefits of robotic palletizing systems
Here’s an overview of the benefits the mill manager can expect after the system is operational:
1. Added productivity
The greatest benefit of a robotic palletizer is added efficiency and, consequently, labor savings. While a system can handle the same production volume with two or three less people, it should be noted that it doesn’t necessarily mean the mill manager is trying to eliminate employees.
“No one has ever been put out of work with any of the systems I have been involved with,” Hentzen explains. “They have been reassigned to do different jobs.”
2. Labor savings
Worker’s health, back injuries and the employer’s liability are a major concern with pallet loading. Here, the cost of worker’s compensation enters the discussion of ROI.
“Our insurance company tabulated the cost of different worker’s compensation scenarios — a typical back injury costs an employer anywhere from a $100,000 to $200,000,” says John Dewall, robotic and palletizing sales representative with Chantland MHS. Comparing this against the total cost of the robotic palletizing system and the pay back is less than three years.
As it becomes more difficult to find bag house labor, mills are turning to automated systems to fill the gap. Hiring — and retaining — employees to lift 50 lb. feed bags for eight hours poses challenges for many feed mills. The automated palletizers provide a much needed alternative.
In addition, elimination of “the human element” adds a valuable level of reliability as “machines don’t call in sick.” Hentzen offers this example: “I had one customer that had three employees on the line and out of the five days a week, at least two days a week, one of the three wouldn’t show up. That was putting him in a hardship.
4. Increased volume
An automated system also allows for constant performance and added production.
According to Hentzen, a few of his customers have been able to increase their production by as much as 50 to 60 percent “just strictly from running at a constant speed all day long as opposed to starting out at a given speed in the morning and by the afternoon they’re running a quarter of that speed.”
Geoff Powers, general manager of California Mill Equipment Company, which carries Concetti Systems, also urges potential buyers to look at today’s volume versus where the mill plans to be in the future. “[The system] is a significant investment for a mill and it might not cost much more to add additional bags per minute now, but they won’t be able to do that later.”
5. User friendly
The operation of a palletizing system does not require sophisticated training. While in the past, Dewall says, systems may have been more complicated, the robots today have become very user friendly and “almost any ma and pop now can run them” with relatively small staffs.
6. Minimal maintenance, long product life
Robotic palletizing systems are known to have a long life, anywhere from 10 to 20 years depending on the amount of use and “if they really take good care of it,” explains Garnet McMillian, N.A. sales manager at American-Newlong, Inc.
Brown notes that maintenance issues average about 70,000 hours for a palletizer.
What to look for in a supplier
All vendors agree that in a feed mill application, the robotic palletizing system requires a robust design; with a high-quality robotic arm; and that every element of the line is constructed out of rugged materials and quality components. However, Brown offers this caveat: “While they may look similar, not all robotic systems are the same.”
With so many systems available, what should a customer look for in a vendor?
In Hentzen’s opinion, the best outcome is achieved if one company sells and installs the entire system. “With an integrator, you’ve got equipment from six different companies into one system and somebody has to try and make it all work together, that can create major issues,” he says, adding that Chantland installs 50 percent of its product in feed mills.
McMillian agrees: “When there are problems with a robotic system, it’s typically not the robot’s fault; it’s an integrator issue not a robot issue. That can provide a black eye for everybody just because it didn’t do well.”
Brown stresses that importance of service support and that the company’s field technicians can support all elements of the system.
“Research the company and the brand to ensure you’re getting the best system possible,” he says. “Ask for references and go see some systems in action so you know you’re comfortable with what you’re purchasing.”