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KUKA Robot Packs Joints, as Overseas Markets, Go Potty for Automation!

There has been a steady increase in the use of robotics within niche applications, as industries away from those we consider ‘traditional’ realize the benefits that can be achieved through the utilization of robot process automation.

01 April 2022


KUKA system partner, CME, has employed their extensive process automation expertise, to deliver the ‘Auto’ range – a specialised handling system, for the delivery of pre-filled cannabis cones, comprising AutoCone and AutoTwist automation technology solutions.

Currently being sold to overseas markets, where the use of Cannabis is strictly legal, the addition of a jointed KR SCARA robot completes a self-contained, fully automated system, that attends to the complete joint production process, from cone forming, through to pick & place at end-of-line, where joints are placed into tins for eventual sale.

Extensive research and development have been undertaken at CME. Even as far as the development of options within the AutoCone product, which has been designed to provide a “traditional” twist close or even replicate Dutch fold style finishes, for authenticity, adding a little extra je ne sais quoi, that has lit up the interests of overseas producers.

Ian Marks, of CME, said of the system’s creation: “This was a truly unique opportunity for us, a blank canvas if you like. There were so many complexities to consider and dexterous tasks that had to be undertaken by automated and robotic means, it played to our bespoke automation strengths and technological expertise. Working with several cannabis companies on packing solutions we understood their next challenge would be the automation of the actual product manufacture. We soon realised that there was a gap in the market, for a standard cell solution, that could easily be integrated into production and packaging facilities. Which has led to this new market-leading range of machines, the fully automated AutoCone joint filling and finishing machine accompanied by the AutoTwist for smaller producers as a semi-automated finishing only version. This is now complemented by the AutoPack robotic packing solution incorporating the KUKA SCARA.

Semi-Automated system, manual loading & unloading with automated twist finishing

There were however several challenges associated with the system development, primarily product. As Cannabis is categorised as a class B drug in the UK, we had to source material with very similar properties with which to undertake a series of tests. We opted for Oregano, which is easy to come by and provided us with the means to undertake a series of developments, accurately”.

The repeatability and accuracy of the automated technology within the AutoCone application enables a throughput capacity potential of 25-30 joints per minute, that’s a staggering volumetric competence of mechanical contrivances and a testament to the engineering proficiencies within CME.

Both the AutoCone and AutoTwist cells combine, to provide manufacturers with a complete, self-contained automated production line, incorporating the KUKA KR SCARA, whose short cycle times (peak value of up to 0.36 sec cycle time for 500 mm and 0.38 sec for 700 mm range) allow it to execute picking and placing tasks efficiently and accurately, whilst its compact footprint, and weight, align with the cells.

Product areas within the Auto machine range are made of stainless steel or food-grade plastic, as the products being handled are intended for ‘consumption’. As automation becomes more widely utilised within industries that convert raw goods into consumer consumables, the need to address hygiene and health and safety considerations within machinery automation becomes a primary consideration for machinery manufacturers, as they deliver automated solutions into sectors such as food & beverage and pharmaceutical.

“If we consider the challenges that may be associated with the production of joints by hand, not forsaking the level of dexterity that would be required to produce high volumes, at speed, and with a level of accuracy that delivered a quality product, time after time, there also exist potential contamination risks, that align with human interaction, at product assembly. For this reason, it was considered that automation would deliver both efficiencies and risk mitigation” says Ian.

The success of the AutoCone & Autotwist means CME now manufacture these as stock machines, with the latest edition of the AutoPack currently being built to order, in alignment with customer demand and also allowing us to tailor the packing solution to each customer’s product requirements. There is no reason why similar process automation cannot be applied within other sectors, for other products.

“The beauty of standardisation is that it is scalable” Ian continues. “Whilst we built this particular solution to undertake the forming and packing of cannabis joints, there is no reason why it cannot be adapted. The basic footprint shall remain the same, but the robot periphery swapped out to countenance the change in material and handling that shall occur thereafter”.

Cannabis is currently illegal for recreational use in the UK and classified as a Class B drug. Medical use of cannabis, when prescribed by a registered specialist doctor, was legalised in November 2018. With this in mind, could there be a future market for the Auto series of machines in the UK?

“Currently, it’s very difficult to predict what changes might occur within current legislation and as such, we are not able to qualify potential in the UK” Ian suggests, continuing “However, the international markets into which we are permitted to sell, remain high”.

CME shall be accompanying KUKA to the forthcoming MACH2022 exhibition that takes place at the NEC, Monday 4th through Friday 8th April, at which they shall be showcasing the robotic element of the AutoCone solution range, minus the cannabis, of course.

Bernard Bagley, Head of Robot Sales (GI), KUKA UK says “This is not your usual product, pick and place application. Whilst CME have very cleverly replicated the product content, the application and the task being executed by the KR SCARA is that which is currently in situ, overseas, where cannabis use is legal”. He continues “Automation is proving its mettle in all manner of industries at present, where challenges such as depleting skilled labour pools, are opening doors to alternative, robotic processes”.

KUKA and CME shall be on stand 430, in hall 18 with the KR SCARA, and will be happy to demonstrate just how they roll…

Hash-tag #robotrecipes

 

Cannabis is illegal to possess, grow, distribute or sell in the UK. It is a Class B drug, with penalties for unlicensed dealing, unlicensed production and unlicensed trafficking of up to 14 years in prison, an unlimited fine, or both.

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