On a hot, sunny day in May, six semi-trucks slowly rumbled up to our Purina Animal Nutrition feed plant in Fort Worth, Texas. But they weren’t carrying feed. They weren’t carrying packaging supplies, either. This fleet of trucks was carrying parts for the first of four robotic palletizers to be installed at the plant—an automated robot, conveyors, control cabinets, cabling, sensors and many other parts, big and small.
Feeding a growing population of people and animals is undeniably the most important goal of modern agriculture. With the world’s population expecting to exceed 9 billion people by 2050, and a growing middle class that’s consuming more meat, we need the best possible equipment and technology to keep up. Upgrading equipment—or outright installing new equipment—is an absolute must. For our Purina feed plants, it's palletizers.
Before we get into the nuts and bolts of palletizers and why they are so great, here’s a little bit about the technology that preceded them: the pallet pushers. Once a bag of feed is filled and closed on the production line, it rolls down a conveyor to the pallet pusher. A panel sweeps out and pushes the bag onto a pallet. When the pallet is full, a forklift whisks it away to a storage area. The feed bags remain there until they are picked for customer orders.
While the four pallet pushers were top-of-the-line when they were installed at Fort Worth 15 years ago, they’ve struggled with increased feed production, especially as they limped to the end of their lifecycles. They constantly broke down, requiring frequent maintenance and on-the-fly tweaks to keep operating.
The risk for back injuries was ever-present; line workers had to constantly move 50-pound bags of feed to put them where the pallet pusher should have. Repairs presented their own risk, as some of them had to be made 20 feet off the ground.
An automated robotic palletizer system makes production easier, more efficient and much safer. Bags are picked up by the palletizer’s robotic arm and placed onto the pallet. Since the palletizer isn’t very tall, there’s no need to make those daunting high-up repairs. The onboard software also pinpoints equipment issues, taking the guesswork out of repairs.
“When you minimize the moving parts and make things simpler, the risk is a lot smaller,” says Tony Murilla, area plant manager for Fort Worth.
Ready for robots
Jim Petruna is a human machine. As a project engineer for Land O’Lakes, Inc., Jim travels to plants to oversee equipment installations. He’s the one who manages the process from start to finish—planning and scheduling, summarizing project outcomes and everything in between. For Jim, installing a palletizer is something he could do in his sleep.
Installing four at once, however, is a different story. Not only did Jim have to manage the overall installation, he also had to make sure all four palletizers were properly installed in just 10 days. (Who said agriculture was slow and boring?)
“All four pallet pushers were in desperate need of replacement. And the layout of the Fort Worth plant meant that we couldn’t install one at a time,” says Jim. “It was all or nothing.”
For nearly a year, Jim and his team worked with the Fort Worth plant and Premier Tech, a packaging solutions company, to figure out what needed to be done before, during and after installation. Delivery of the palletizers, for example, had to be staggered over four weeks since it took six semi-trucks to deliver the parts for one robot.
Greg Talbott, the Fort Worth maintenance manager, was instrumental in providing input and support to ensure the project met strict plant standards.
“He made sure equipment was approved prior to shipping and created lists of spare parts to have on hand if something breaks or wears out,” says Jim. “Greg…was just awesome.”
Fort Worth employees also worked tirelessly to build a surplus of cattle, horse and chicken feed—all while fulfilling regular orders.
“We wanted to make sure service wasn’t interrupted for our customers while the production lines were down,” explains Tony.
Out with the old, in with the new
In early June, after 24 semi-truckloads of parts, countless meetings and many crossed fingers, the pallet pushers stacked their final bags and the production lines were shut down. The excitement and energy were palpable—everyone was eager to get started.
Each palletizer had its own A-team of installers from Land O’Lakes, Premier Tech, three millwright companies and an engineering company. The teams also included employees from a construction management company to help ensure proper installation. They were prepared to work 13-hour shifts during the 10-day installation period.
The teams referred to a general arrangement drawing to lay out the parts for each palletizer. All the parts were color-coded to help prevent mix-ups: line one was white, line two yellow, line three orange and line four blue.
The work was allocated—one group assembled the line, while another put together the conveyer belt. Electricians did the wiring and technicians installed software, making sure everything worked as expected.
Meanwhile, at an offsite warehouse, Fort Worth employees filled orders and kept an eye on inventory.
Making a list, checking it twice
The days were bookended with huddles—one to discuss what was going to get done and another to discuss what got done. Like any improvement project, there were some hiccups along the way. One team unpacked a photo eye sensor that broke during shipment. After adding it to that day’s punch list—a collection of tasks that unexpectedly pop up—Greg had a new one overnighted to the plant.
Fort Worth also installed a check weigher on each line, which weighs every bag to make sure it’s 50 pounds. Any bag above or below that threshold will be removed from the line and reworked into the bulk feed to be re-bagged. This checkpoint ensures our customers get every bit of feed they’ve paid for, maximizing the value of their dollar.
As for that 10-day installation goal? The teams didn’t just hit it. They smashed it, finishing three days early.
“Jim and Greg have been instrumental to our success,” says Tony. “They were well-prepared for what we needed to happen.”
The new normal
After training the line operators and maintenance teams, the production lines were ready to go back to work with their new robot helpers. As operators began using the palletizers, they offered helpful suggestions for improvements—things that wouldn’t be noticed until the day-to-day work begins.
At peak demand, the palletizers can bag up to 35,000 bags per day—an estimated increase of 25 percent. In a time when ag is being asked to do more with less, a double-digit percentage jump in production is most welcome.
These aren’t the first palletizers we’ve installed, nor will they be the last. Our goal is to have palletizers in all our Purina feed plants by the end of 2023.
Land O’Lakes has been Feeding Human Progress since our cooperative formed in 1921. We’ve always understood the importance of technology and its place in modern ag. But there’s something even more important: the people. Without the people to create and use these advancements, we won’t be able to help feed the world.
At Fort Worth, we have the people.
And now they have the technology.