The factory already features a number of high-speed processing and packing lines. However, while the line dedicated to ready prepared potatoes was able to operate at 45 packs per minute, packing the filled trays into euro crates was a physical impossibility at this speed.
"Before the installation of the Ishida FPS, we were packing by hand but even if we had wanted to dedicate more personnel to the task, there simply wasn't room for more than two people at the end of the line," said Hitchen engineering manager Ged Warburton.
"The only solution in order to be able to maintain line speed was to automate the end of line packing process."
The company is a leading supplier of added value vegetable and salad based products to major multiple retailers, and prepares over 100,000 meals each day. The installation underlines how even leading suppliers are seeking to improve their production performance in order to compete in what has become a highly competitive international environment.
A recent survey conducted by the business forum CIES found that this intense competition, often originating from the demands retailers, is a major source of concern for the food manufacturing sector.
"Perennial tensions between retailers and suppliers have been exacerbated by downward pressure on prices," said the report. "Further deflation is expected in certain categories in view of discount competition and increased global sourcing."
Nonetheless, Hitchen is confident that the recent upgrade will allow the company to compete on the European market.
"We were impressed by the speed and efficiency of the machine and the fact that it did not require any specialist training to operate it," said Warburton.
The FPS features an agile, multi-axis pick-and-place arm with a vacuum pick up head that picks up two trays at a time and transfers them into a euro crate. The flexibility of the system means that it was initially able to handle eight different tray shapes and sizes, including both round and rectangular versions.
Ishida and Hitchen Foods also devised a special system to enable layer cards to be inserted into the crates as required by one retailer.
Today the packing requirements have been simplified to two tray sizes, producing a wide variety of packs for different retailers, packed into full and half size euro crates. Half size crates are presented broad edge leading, enabling two of them to be filled at the same time.
Individual requirements for each pack are programmed into the FPS' Remote Control Unit, so that product changeovers can be carried out at the touch of a button. www.ishidaeurope.com Ishida Europe also installed a gated infeed conveyor to present the euro crates and a take-away roller track conveyor.
"The FPS has been very well received by the operators on the factory floor, it has proved highly reliable and we have been impressed with Ishida's high standards of service and support," said Warburton.
"The fact that the machine has been able to run reliably and consistently throughout has been its main benefit and brought about a fast payback on our investment."