Just Born and JLS Team Up to Automate Peeps Brand Packaging

Aug. 8, 2019
The line integrates JLS robotic packaging cells with equipment from several OEMs. The flexible format accommodates various configurations, upping productivity without impacting the workforce.

This article originally appeared on Aug. 8, 2019.

Just Born Quality Confections, the family-owned candy manufacturer of such iconic brands as Peeps, Mike and Ike, Hot Tamales, and Goldenberg’s Peanut Chews, has been in business for close to 100 years. With decades of business acumen under their belts, company executives understand the need to innovate to satisfy consumer demand.

Considering that about 2 billion Peeps are produced every year, for all seasons, and that there are many variations of that product—including Peeps Delights, a premium version of a marshmallow chick with a chocolate coated bottom—company executives knew it was time to move away from the labor-intensive manual processes on the plant floor and introduce more automation.

Automating processing and packaging lines for products such as Mike and Ike—a chewy fruit-flavored candy—was easy enough. But others—like the soft marshmallow Peeps—could be damaged by the grip of a robotic arm.

The company also had a need to go from manual to automatic tray loading for all varieties of 2D Peeps bunnies. For the most part, this has been automated to fit the general format of a 1x4 cluster of bunnies, loosely joined “shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip,” within a pack.

But it was the 3D Peeps Delights that were the focus of attention because they traditionally had to be hand-filled because they were so delicate.

“We needed a way to efficiently produce our new Peeps Delights line,” says David Yale, president and chief operating officer of Just Born. “We think we’ll see tremendous growth on that part of the business, and we needed a way to efficiently pack it out.”

In 2016, Just Born sent a team to PACK EXPO International to find a way to automate the Peeps 3D packaging line. It is there that they saw a demonstration of York, Pa.-based JLS Automation’s robotic case packer, which featured end-of-arm grippers from Soft Robotics. The grippers are designed to mimic the human hand to grasp and manipulate items that vary in size, shape, and weight. Plus, the end-of-arm tooling meets U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requirements, making them safe for food contact.

It was a good start, but there was so much more that needed to be integrated into this line—from conveyor systems to tray denesters, tray erectors, flow-wrappers, metal detectors, and case sealers.

After a request for proposal (RFP) went out to many machine builders and integrators, JLS Automation ultimately won the bid and got started on a very long and detailed spec. The JLS team documented how it would meet every line item, negotiating compromises on prerequisites that couldn’t be met because of technical reasons.

The spec exercise eventually got the sign-off by Just Born and work began on the automated Peeps packing line. This required four JLS Talon robotic pick-and-place cells, each outfitted with four ABB FlexPicker robots equipped with the Soft Robotics gripper. These robotic cells had to be integrated into a large system with machines from several other OEMs, including Rotzinger/Transver (diagonal spreader, S-curve and picking conveyors), MGS Machine (tray denesters), Kliklok-Bosch (tray erectors), Delta Systems/Ilapak (flow wrappers and lug conveyor), NCC Automated Systems (wrapped product conveyor and manual case packing systems using Dorner spirals, tray and scrap conveyor), Mettler Toledo/Safeline (metal detectors), and Wexxar (case sealer/taper).

This is one of the largest capital investments Just Born had ever made and an extremely large project—in sheer size—for JLS.

“I think that is what is so unique about this,” says Craig Souser, president and CEO of JLS Automation. “This was the largest undertaking in their history in terms of capital expenditure, not just automation. It was using conventional technology, so putting it all together in the way we did and testing it was nothing unique. But it was unique for them.”

It was unique for JLS in that the integrated packaging line takes up 14,000 sq ft of real estate. Luckily, JLS was moving to a new building—one that could accommodate the line—which is where they set up the equipment for the factory acceptance test (FAT). Once complete, it took 10 days to do the installation at the Just Born facility in Bethlehem, Pa., after which the site acceptance test (SAT) was run.

All systems go

In August 2018, the packaging line went live. The integrated line starts as the newly sugared, warm marshmallow Peeps are coming out of the “kitchen” and then loaded onto the Rotzinger cooling/buffer conveyor—JLS did some integration work on that conveyor with the help of K2 Kinetics to dynamically control the line as it is running. After exiting the buffer, the product continues onto the JLS-supplied spreader belt, which is used to move the product wide across the pick belt so the Peeps don’t touch.

“The marshmallow we use isn’t like the ones you buy in the bag; ours is much softer,” explains Randall Copeland, senior vice president of supply chain operations at Just Born. “We could toughen them up for packaging if we added a bunch of gelatin and starches, but who wants to eat that? So it’s very important for the identity of our product.”

The special recipe also creates a very fragile product that is moving down the line and getting more product separation across the belt in preparation to be picked up by the robot grippers, which are the first things to touch the Peeps after they’ve been processed. Not only do they demand a delicate touch, but none of the individual peeps or clusters can touch each other once they’re formed or they’ll stick together, the sugar coating will rub off, and they’ll gum up the entire works in the line, Copeland says.

As the product moves into the pick-and-place part of the line, it reaches the four JLS Talon robotic work cells, each equipped with four ABB FlexPicker robots and two ABB robot controllers. Regulated and filtered air is supplied by Festo and SMC components to the Soft Robotics controller and gripper system. In total, 16 robots are guided by four independent Cognex vision systems.

Uniquely, the vision system uses infrared (IR) backlit vision. Peeps can be any color coming down the belt, so visible light can’t be used to find the product on a belt. JLS used IR backlighting to solve this, which basically just turns the picture into a silhouette.

Depending on the type of Peeps product being produced and the selected recipe, the ABB robots pick the Peeps and place them directly into thermoformed plastic or chipboard trays. The trays are then conveyed under the robots by the same Delta wrapper infeed. The thermoform trays are directly placed onto the wrappers’ lugged infeed by the MGS (a Coesia company) tray denester. The chipboard trays are also placed directly onto the wrapper lugged infeed by the Kliklok-Bosch tray formers, which use a Nordson hot melt glue system.

(See “Peeps Primary Packaging Path,” below, for a detailed description of the layout.)

The overall integrated line is controlled by a Rockwell Automation Allen-Bradley ControlLogix programmable logic controller (PLC) in a master cabinet, which acts as a gateway for the system and ties the various machines together. Using a Rockwell controller was the one thing that was required in the original spec that Just Born would not negotiate on, Copeland says, because it is a company standard. “My team knows Allen-Bradley. I have spare parts around Allen-Bradley,” he says. “So on controls, yes, there are some particular things we tend to steer toward.”

That Rockwell requirement also extended to the four human-machine interfaces (HMIs) at each work cell, which are Rockwell’s PanelView systems using Packaging Machinery Language (PackML) as a common way to collect data across machines, lines, and shifts. In addition, the safety mechanisms such as e-stops and door interlocks are from Rockwell, and the network is EtherNet/IP.

To understand what’s going on with the networked equipment, Just Born gets overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) information through Aveva’s Wonderware supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software, which pulls tags from motors, drives and other components then plots and stores the data. “Just Born already had an existing SCADA system,” explains Lucas Boucher, project engineering manager at JLS. “We connected our equipment to the plant network and configured it so Just Born could access our system from the plant network and pull data as desired.”

There is the potential in the future to use more sophisticated analytics to improve line performance and productivity.

“As the costs of components go up, the cost of labor goes up. We want to be able to at least hold our ground—that is, to have productivity increase at the rate that will offset our other increases,” Copeland explains. “We’re always looking for ways to improve. And our primary tool, frankly, is modernization and capitalization by putting in equipment that gives us better speeds, capital capabilities rates, and less labor, which is very advantageous to us because [some of] our workforce is retiring.”

Copeland is quick to point out that nobody lost a job as a result of automation. And, given the current struggles across industry to find skilled talent, he doesn’t have to hire more people to replace the aging workforce.

“It really helped me out because I cannot hire enough people,” Copeland says. “So nobody lost a job when we added this automation. Conversely, I just didn’t have to hire so many people and it enabled me to put them where I need them, which is growing the Mike and Ike and Hot Tamales business. It really helped out in a way we never even anticipated.”

Yale agrees. “This gives us so much flexibility,” he says. “The system that has been put in is not only for those Peeps Delights, but it gives Randall and his team the capability of also doing our regular Peeps on that line in a variety of different configurations and packs, which we’ve never had the flexibility to do that on any of our lines before. We can do bunnies, chicks, regular, filled, bottomed. It’s pretty amazing having that jack-of-all-trades line that is also very efficient, whereas a line before had 20-some odd people packing product into trays, which was inefficient. We wanted a way to justify the build of a production allocation to that line and we are getting it and looking to that line to take on more workload in the future.”

Lessons learned

When all was said and done, the JLS team noted that the biggest challenge was the integration of so many pieces of equipment to create a single line that can handle 16 different recipes (a description of how to position the product in the box), three different product types (which meant three different end-of-arm tools on the robotic pick and place), nine different cluster formats, five paperboard tray styles, and five thermoform tray styles requiring denesting.

“All that variability and combination was an interesting challenge,” Boucher says. There were also challenges around getting the equipment to work optimally while interacting in the sequence that was needed. For example, Delta Systems flow wrappers might have a point where they need to stop, but the robots have trays they are working on. And the Kliklok-Bosch system can’t stop immediately because the trays are partially glued and it needs to process and finish. “Finding the engineering nuances and figuring out how to effectively work on the line took work to figure out.”

And, of course, it all had to work reliably.

“It was our desire, and JLS’s suggestion, that [the line] have enough capabilities such that you can lose one cell and keep going at full rate,” Copeland says. “And usually it’s not anything to do with the cell. Normally it’s related to the wrapper, which we have very, very good wrappers, but short interruptions in product flow happens for a variety of reasons, including routine operator checks. So you need to be able to shut down a wrapper to do normal things for a few minutes and not have to worry about the lines going down and losing productivity.”

Next up, Just Born says, is to automate the end-of-line packaging.

Just before entering either of the parallel case packing stations, product runs through one of two Mettler Toledo/Safeline metal detection systems. Case erecting and case packing remains manual for the time being. But as the line evolves, don’t expect things to stay that way.

According to Souser, when he met with Just Born CEO Ross Born during a site visit to see the installation, Born commented, “Well, you’ve created a real problem for me. I have to buy case packers now because our people can’t keep up with the line anymore.” The ripple effect of upstream automation will no doubt be felt downstream.

As mentioned, in terms of capital equipment outlay, size, and scope, the JLS integrated line was the biggest project ever for Just Born. It cleared the dual hurdles of product variability and product fragility, and in doing so unlocked productivity throughout the plant, not just on the previously troublesome 3D Peeps line. But all these changes were tactical wins that ladder up to improvement in Just Born’s overall business strategy: to sell more products at a better margin in order to grow.

“Our flexibility in manufacturing, flexibility of product type, and also flexibility of human-labor allocation to production have all been positively impacted. It was a win on many different fronts,” Yale says. For example, it’s now more economically efficient to sell these really nice premium products; the efficiency matches that of the larger-volume products, and this has enabled Just Born to go back into Walmart and get them excited about it. “We can look at capital equipment as a sales aid. It’s a facilitator for growth, which I think is the best way to think about it.”

SIDEBAR: Peeps Primary Packaging Path

By Matt Reynolds, Packaging World Editor

Peeps flow unidirectionally on the pick belt past each of the four nearly identical robotic cells, and the number of Peeps on the pick belt reduces to zero as they pass the first, second, third, and ultimate fourth cell. The pick belt terminates after it passes the fourth cell.

Each cell also contains a Delta wrapper infeed conveyor that hovers just above the pick belt, perpendicularly intersecting it.

Standing downstream of the pick belt, at its terminus behind the fourth cell, each of these conveyors can be seen to carry primary packing—chipboard or thermoformed trays—from the left to right. Immediately upstream of the robotic cells, feeding these intersecting conveyors, are two machines per conveyor. Only one of the two will be live during any product run, depending on if the recipe calls for thermoformed or chipboard trays. Both permanently installed and available for easy changeover, they aren’t wheeled off the line when not in use.

When running thermoformed trays, an MGS (a Coesia company) machine denests the stacked, nested trays and feeds them on the conveyor then over the pick belt for one of the 16 robots to fill. For chipboard tray, a tray erector from Kliklok-Bosch forms chipboard trays, hot-melt glues them into shape with Nordson hot melt applicators, and feeds the trays over the pick belt for the same purpose.

After the Peeps are placed into the tray, they continue downstream—again perpendicular to and above the picking belt—now to the right of the robotic cell. There, they are flow-wrapped in flexible film on Delta/Ilapak flow wrappers on lug conveyors.

From the wrappers, the finished product flows onto NCC Automated Systems conveyors constructed using a variety of standard Dorner conveyors.