Feature: How automation is revolutionising egg packing

By Rachael Porter

Automated egg grading and packing is not only reducing the cost of labour but it’s also lightening the load for egg packing plant staff and taking the strain when it comes to some of the more repetitive and heavy lifting jobs on the production line.

“Cost savings, particularly in terms of labour, are the key driver behind the technology, but installing automated and robotic logistic systems can also improve staff welfare – they can move into roles that are away from the end-of-line jobs that may have seen them either sitting or standing in the same position for several hours, if not all day,” says Sanovo Technology Group’s R & D technical manager Morten Friis.

“And robotic automation is not just about reducing labour. It relates just as much to increasing biosecurity, the product quality and maximising the yield.  Traceability is also important and our systems offer that, as well as speed and uniformity.”

Less waste

Automated packing lines – be they palletising, de-palletising, case packing or case palletising – should also reduce waste simply because the product being produced is more ‘uniform’ – there should be fewer rejected packages. “Robotic equipment is perfect for repetitive work, particularly in areas that require consistency – whether that’s grading, weighing or packing,” says Friis.

“End each job can also vary so, for example, grading can sort eggs by size, colour, weight and quality – we can check inside each egg for any impurities.”

And this is all done with speed and accuracy. The company’s egg palletiser, which is an anthropomorphic robot, works at a speed of 144,000 eggs per hour with plastic trays, pulp trays, or both – keeping the different productions separated.

It can handle plastic or carton interlayers, as well as plastic or wooden pallets, according to the most used dimension standards. And it will pick up four stacks together, using a special head fork system that can handle both pulp and plastic trays.

The company also has a de-palletiser, which handles plastic trays at a capacity of up to 600cph (216,000 eggs per hour). Its head can also handle interlayers and pallets.

Friis says that the automation process after the grader lanes has become increasingly important. It requires high precision at high speed.

Flexible solution

Whatever the egg packing plants requirements, flexibility is key. “There’s so much variety in this market, with potentially hundreds of different types of egg boxes and packaging options. And even the outer cases vary too,” says Friis.

Working closely with customers, right along the production chain, is key to meeting clients’ needs. “We’re a key part of the chain and we have the expertise and technology to help our customers to produce what the market demands.

Packaging ‘limitations’

“We also help them to be realistic and to say ‘no’ when complex packaging is suggested,” says Friis. The people designing it are often unaware of the limitations when it comes to packing and transporting the product. Sometimes the cost of installing or adapting machinery to accommodate different packaging – particularly for short runs – just isn’t financially viable.

Labour saving

Scottish Borders-based free-range egg business, MacLean Eggs, has installed automated packing and stacking equipment in two 32,000-bird sheds during the past 18 months. Owner Angela MacLean is pleased with results so far.

“The labour we have is better utilised looking after the birds and grading the eggs, rather than being used on a repetitive end-of-line task that’s both physical and time consuming,” she says. “It is becoming more of a challenge for small businesses to find reliable, skilled staff. And I believe that our loyal employees should be looked after and protected.

“While some might argue that robots are taking away employment opportunities, businesses, like mine, need to remain competitive and efficient to safeguard these jobs in the future.” 

The two sheds each have a Prinzen Smartpack, which can pack up to 30,000 eggs per hour, and a PS4 tray stacker, as well as an end-of-line egg palletising robot from Newtown-based RM Group.

This robot, a refurbished IRB6400 (a model often used in the car manufacturing industry) is the ideal end-of-line solution for any egg processing plant, according to company sales director Edward Pugh. “It’s capable of palletising four pallets per hour – that’s more than 570 eggs per minute. The system allows egg producers to process and palletise their eggs with ease and at a speed that dramatically influence their daily production rate, as well as increasing accuracy and grading efficiency.”

The system comprises an ABB palletising robot with a bespoke gripper head that’s designed to pick and place the egg trays, as well as the dividing sheets. The egg trays are picked up using the existing contours in the plastic egg trays and strategically-placed sensors ensure that the trays are clear of the forks before the robot fully retracts. This eliminates the possibility of any breakages.

So far 40 such robots have been installed in egg packing plants across the UK, with more on order. “The minimum shed size for it to be financially viable is 32,000 birds. Lower than that and it’s just not worth the investment – it won’t be working hard enough and manual palletising is more cost effective,” explains Pugh.

She adds that the estimated payback period for each of the automated palletising systems alone will be around three flocks. “The reconditioned robotic system cost around £45,000. This investment frees up staff time, which is then better spent elsewhere in the poultry sheds, on flock welfare and husbandry or on more skilled jobs in the packing plant.”


What’s new in egg packaging?

Egg boxes made using rye grass and recycled paper will be extended to more Waitrose eggs.

The packaging has protected eggs in the Duchy range since 2015. And from March more Waitrose eggs will be packaged in the environmentally friendly alternative, with the roll out to eight more products. The new boxes will be used for packaging British Blacktail eggs, which are exclusive to Waitrose.

The packaging offers the same protection as a traditional egg box, but uses 60% less water during production, releases 20% less CO2 and uses 20% less electricity compared to a standard pulp egg box.

““This is a positive move to boost the sustainability of our packaging and help the environment,” says Waitrose’s head of responsible sourcing and sustainability Tor Harris.

“These innovative packs build on our commitment to ensure that all our own-label packaging is: widely recyclable; reusable; or home compostable, by 2025.’’  


Egg boxes design is child’s play

Egg boxes that double as building blocks for imaginative play have been launched by Denmark-based packaging company DAVA Foods Packaging.

The company says that the eggyplay box is an excellent example of the kind of product that DAVA Foods Packaging can ‘give extra lift and momentum in the marketplace’. It is a patented egg box design, made from colourful moulded plastic. “The box not only stores and protects eggs, but it can also be reused as a toy. The boxes interlock, allowing them to be used a toy building blocks,” says the company’s Jacco Wagelaar.

“Customers can collect boxes, wash them in the dishwasher at 65˚C and let their imaginations run wild. The boxes can offer hours of fun, play, and learning.”

The box is made from polypropylene (PP05), which means that it is also recyclable. “It also weighs less than a standard egg box and takes up half the space when opened and stacked. So the design makes transport simpler and more fuel-efficient,” adds Wagelaar.

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