Milking it with a robotic solution at Tomlinson’s

Welsh dairy invests in automated trolley packer

Posted on 04 Mar 2019 and read 597 times
Milking it with a robotic solution at Tomlinson’sAn ABB robot (new.abb.com) has helped Wrexham-based Tomlinson’s improve its productivity, as part of a trolley-packing solution designed by Mechelec Automation (www.mechelecautomation.com).

Working up to 18hr a day loading bottles of milk onto trolleys, the robot-based system has doubled the number of four-pint bottles packed from 120 to 240 per min.

Tomlinson’s supplies over 25 million litres of fresh milk a year to over 300 outlets in Wales, the Midlands and the North West of England.

Previously, the company loaded its trolleys manually at the end of the filling line, but there was often a bottleneck, with trolleys becoming jammed during the loading process.

In addition, the employees were at risk of repetitive strain (RSI) or lifting injuries.

When Tomlinson’s decided to speed up production by upgrading other stages of the production line, the company realised that it needed to automate the loading system as well.

Aware of the many dairy companies using trolleys, Mechelec had already begun devising an automated solution to tackle the problems typically associated with transporting milk bottles from the end of the line to supermarkets.

Called the TP1002 trolley packer, this solution incorporates an ABB palletising robot (gb.abb.com) with a bespoke loading tool, compressed air-operated components, servo drives and a variety of mechanical parts.

Designed to perform faster than previous systems, the TP1002 avoids jamming, improves productivity and is easy to maintain and clean.

The pneumatic system features ISO standard routine cylinders, rotary cylinders and compact valve terminals supplied by Festo, making it as reliable, cost-effective and efficient as possible.

Philip Tomlinson, managing director of Tomlinson’s Dairies, said: “We approached Mechelec Automation because we knew they had the relevant experience to implement a system that would meet our specifications, including removing the risk of jamming and improving health and safety.

“Both challenges have been overcome, while efficiency has improved, and production output has greatly increased.

“We can respond to orders and deliver our products faster than ever before.

“The system currently operates during set periods, but it will be used 24/7 as orders increase and production needs to be ramped up.”

Conveyor system


Bottles of milk are fed from a filling line through a conveyor system, before passing into a multi-lane set-up that divides them into four lanes.

They are then collated into the required format (groups of five bottles), so that there are 20 bottles on either side of the trolley packer, waiting to be loaded onto two trolleys.

One group of five bottles is then pushed into the robot gripper, which lifts and rotates them 180deg towards the first trolley.

The trolleys have four shelves, with the bottom shelf being loaded with the first 20 bottles.

When all four shelves are full, the first trolley is taken to the cold stores while the second trolley is loaded, and the next empty trolley is put in position.

It previously took four workers 1min to load two trolleys; the automated system has reduced the time to 40sec.

The jamming of the trolleys is no longer a problem either, because they remain at the same level and no longer have to be manoeuvred during the loading process.

Hygiene is very important at dairy production sites such as Tomlinson’s; the TP 1002 Trolley Packer gives staff easier access to the end of the line, so that it can be cleaned, and the ABB robot has an IP67 rating, which means it can be washed down regularly without risk of damage to equipment.

Although the TP1002 is currently set up to handle four-pint bottles, it can be easily reprogrammed to handle other bottle sizes.

It can also be reprogrammed to load different trolleys, or to handle shrink-wrapped products.

Mechelec director John Salisbury said: “If a customer wants an automated solution that can switch between products and work with various trolley types, we can pre-commission it so that the recipes are built into the system.

“The flexibility of production at a dairy goods manufacturer is significantly increased where robot automation is installed, due to the many capabilities and opportunities that the programming software provides.”

Mike Wilson, ABB business development manager for the UK and Ireland, said: “Dairy companies such as Tomlinson’s experience much the same challenges as the rest of the food and beverage industry.

“The increasing demands of today’s consumer mean that the ability to offer a variety of products is becoming the norm.

“Dairy companies that embrace automation now will become increasingly flexible. By being prepared for the last-minute batch orders that come in as a result of the changeable market, they will be well-positioned.”

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