Robotics & Automation News

Market trends and business perspectives

Flexible ‘robot hands’ pack delicate herbs

It takes great finesse to cultivate and deliver tasteful, fresh herbs. It requires intelligent automation to ensure that production is efficient, competitive, and creates a good work environment.

That is why Denmark’s largest producer of herbs and mini plants, Rosborg Food Holding, chose to invest in sensitive, flexible robot grippers from On Robot to handle the plants.

The use of herbs dates back to Babylon 4000 years ago. The ancient Egyptians and Greeks developed and refined the cultivation of herbs for the emerging medical sciences and culinary delights.

In the 21st century, robotics technology is increasingly contributing to the taste and smell of our food.

Inside the 120,000 square meters of greenhouses in Odense, Denmark, mint, dill, tarragon, miniature roses and other small delicate plants grow in an advanced production facility equipped with state-of-the-art technology.

A total of 130 employees produce, pack, sell, and manage 28 million herb plants and 12 million mini flowers annually under the product names Gloria Mundi, Økologihaven and Eurostar plants.

By focusing on streamlining and automating production, they are able to handle the growing demand and wide range of products, and deal with significant seasonal fluctuations.

“We are constantly working to optimize the productivity and profitability of our processes by automating the monotonous, heavy tasks that employees would prefer to avoid anyway. Robot technology also helps us reduce the amount of overtime and temporary workers,” says Henning Jørgensen, partner and operations manager, Rosborg Food Holding.

The Danish nursery has produced spices and mini flowers for both retail and restaurants since 1980. In 2013 a new owner began the process of radically modernizing the company’s entire production.

Investments for 37 million Danish kroner were made in the installation of new high-efficient greenhouses equipped with automation technology and robots. At the same time, Rosborg has expanded its range of products to meet the growing demand for other types of herbs than those traditionally used in Scandinavian cuisine.

Besides robots and employees, they also utilize 10 different kinds of beneficial insects, which eliminate pests on the plants in the greenhouses.

One of the latest investments in automation is a flexible packaging line featuring a “cobot” from Universal Robots, fitted with an RG6 gripper from the manufacturer of robot grippers, On Robot.

The two “fingers” of the robot gripper have built-in intelligence and advanced technology that mimics the way humans instinctively use our sense of touch when we grab things to move them.

The automated packaging solution is so intuitive to use that staff without robot experience easily can switch the solution to packing other types of products by changing settings on the robotic arm’s touch screen, says the company.

The RG6 robot gripper’s software is installed in the robotic arm in the same way as an app on a smartphone.

“We were looking for a gripper to lift herbs and flowers gently without squashing them. We chose an R6G gripper because of its wide and gentle grip, as well as precise and flexible abilities.

“Our new solution with the cobot and gripper automates the task of folding cardboard boxes and placing cut herbs into the boxes. We were looking for the fastest repayment time. We already have our next project lined up which is to buy another cobot and gripper to feed a cutting machine that cuts the herbs.

“The arm and gripper will locate and gently grab the plant, turn them to place them on the line to the cutting machine,” explains Henning Jørgensen.

Henning Jørgensen sees a huge potential for Rosborg to use several collaborative robots and grippers, i.e., “robotic arms and hands” because the repayment period is so short.

“We want to ensure a larger surplus capacity for daily operations, so that we can also double our production in peak season, during Christmas, New Year and Easter, without losing profits on overtime and replacement worker expenses.

“As it is today, our earning shrink during large productions periods. Employees in production are also very positive about the prospect of collaborative robot technologies helping them produce more efficiently and minimizing overtime,” says Henning Jørgensen.

The new generation of collaborating robot arms poses completely different requirements for the robot grippers – or rather to the hand at the end of the robot arm. What the hand is capable of doing is crucial to the chosen task.

The more user-friendly, flexible and gentle the gripper is, the greater the variety of tasks that can be automated, and the faster the robot and the gripper will pay off.

To be fully collaborative, a robot product must meet three criteria. First, it must be safe for people to work next to the robot without the use of protective shielding.

Second, it must be user-friendly and easy to install, program and operate. Third, the product must be profitable and efficient.

On Robot’s grippers meet all these criteria. They are available in two sizes: RG2 with a lifting capacity of 2 kg and RG6, which has an even wider grip and can handle items up to 6 kg.

While traditional robot grippers typically are powered by compressed air, On Robots’ electrical and digital grippers eliminate the tangle of cables that often are seen attached around the robotic arms, which can get entangled with the robotic arm as well as other installations.

The gripper pulls on the internal wiring inside the robot itself, and the gripper’s user interface and operator controls are integrated into the robot’s user interface itself.