JLS Automation offers innovative hygienic robotic packaging solutions

By Alyssa Mitchell

YORK, Pa. — For more than six decades, JLS Automation has been meeting dairy and cheese manufacturers’ needs for robotic packaging solutions that offer greater overall productivity, connectivity and flexibility.

Photo courtesy of JLS Automation
TALON PICK AND PLACE — Robotic-based pick and place systems like the Talon above were developed by JLS Automation with today’s rigorous operational demands in mind. The Talon features a stainless steel delta robot for precise placement and orientation, as well as a tool-less belt lifting feature for ease of cleaning.
Photo courtesy of JLS Automation
OSPREY CASE PACKER — Leveraging the successes of its Talon pick and place packaging systems in dairy primary packing applications, JLS also has developed the Osprey Robotic Case Packer.
The robotic case packing system fits into the limited floor space at the discharge of primary packaging machinery and can be used in a high sanitation environment, while being agile enough to accommodate frequent changeovers.

JLS Automation developed and installed its first robotic case packing system in 2002. The company has grown into an innovative supplier of robotic pick-and-place systems and case packers for the food, pharmaceutical and personal care industries. JLS’s customer-specific robotic packaging systems are designed and built in the company’s 105,000-square-foot facility in York, Pennsylvania.

Craig Souser, president/CEO and son of JLS Automation founder JL Souser, has led the company through its transition from a sales channel for other motion control products to being a provider of solutions for selected markets. Core competencies of JLS include end of tooling, robotics and vision, as well as product handling.

“JLS has been and is a family business at its roots,” Souser says.

He notes JLS Automation at its inception was a very small business operated out of his father’s home. JL Souser passed away in 1976, when Craig was in college.

“My mom ran the business and hired me to help bridge the gap until I graduated. So I never really worked anywhere else,” he says.

“Robotic automation for packaging is literally what we do as a company,” Souser says, “and we’re almost exclusively in the food industry.”

He adds that the company is differentiated by its work in high sanitation environments and its attention to detail.

JLS Automation’s involvement in cheese has grown and continues to grow, Souser says.

“Cheese is one of the more demanding production environments, so it’s well aligned as a target market for us,” he says.

JLS’s robotic packaging solutions cover a wide variety of both primary and secondary cheese packaging applications. Whether customers need to place sticks of cheese into thermoformed pouches, blocks of cheese into cases or slices into pouches (and then into cases), JLS can handle all of the above, and more.

“Our hygienic robotic packaging solutions are made to get wet,” Souser says. “High sanitary design comes standard on all JLS machines, which meet USDA-Dairy design standards.”

JLS robotic cheese packaging machines also can handle goat and other cheeses that require delicate handling, as well as tote loading applications.

“What we do now from a technical standpoint literally didn’t exist for most of our history. It’s a relatively new technology,” Souser says.

“The cheesemaking process is hard on equipment, and our robots that we put into the primary handling applications are stainless, made to be hit with high pressure and chemicals,” he adds. “We’re designing equipment specifically for that environment.”

Some of the company’s cheese packaging offerings include the Talon Robotic Pick & Place, which can be utilized to place sticks or slices into thermoformed pouches. Meanwhile, the Osprey Robotic Case Packer can then gently and efficiently place the thermoformed pouches into cases.

“Our systems are extremely versatile and flexible. JLS ascribes to our Design for Agility philosophy which will enhance customers’ overall productivity and virtually eliminate downtime via quick change-over design principles providing predictable and repeatable results following a changeover or at start-up,” Souser says.

He notes a macro trend across the marketplace is the shortage of operators for production lines, especially in food because of its highly repetitive, and in many cases, “unskilled” work.

“In that sense, it doesn’t always lead to career advancement,” he says. “If you couple that with a cheese plant that is likely a wetter, colder environment, it’s a perfect storm to have hiring challenges.”

At the same time, a large population of baby boomers are headed into retirement, which will further weigh on the work force, and the millennial generation typically is not interested in these types of jobs, Souser says.

In this environment, companies are further embracing robotics technology, he adds.

Robotics take pressure off of human employees, as cheese blocks can be very heavy and cold, making it challenging to load into a tote, for example.

“Robots are very reliable as long-life devices. And they are flexible so that as product attributes change, they are adaptable,” Souser says.

Souser notes most customers want to run more than one shape and size of cheese, and JLS’s systems make it easy to change out.

The systems can work with any cheese size and shape.

“We have the ability to handle everything from as small as String cheese up to large blocks,” he says.

JLS also is doing work in the area of tote loading, Souser says.

“Some of our customers might have large blocks of cheese for wholesale, maybe ending up at a pizza operation or the deli counter, typically unbranded,” he says. “But they need to go into a shipping tote that’s sizeable, and we have a large robot that we’ve deployed in that case to pick that up and load that into the tote.

“Since the Talon pick and place robot was designed to integrate with other packaging machinery, JLS can easily upgrade customers’ packaging lines, utilizing their existing equipment and maximizing investment,” he adds.

Souser notes that while the Talon and Osprey are standard designs, the layout and installation that come with them are almost always custom.

“It may be based on something we’ve already done, but the particular arrangement is specific to that customer,” he says.

While the company rarely provides the physical installation service, it oversees it and is available for input.

Souser notes sanitary construction and general food safety are key priorities in dairy and food processing, and JLS guarantees its offerings meet industry standards.

The company utilizes the proprietary JLS PIVT (Package Integrity Validation Technology) to validate the integrity of a package. Initially, this technology focused on hot dog and sausage packages, but PIVT now is being targeted to other package formats, including cheese.

“PIVT is not one technology, but a combination of various technologies dependent on the requirement,” Souser says. “Vacuum, vision, and several other sensor technologies can be integrated to detect seal contamination, leaks, pin-holes, and other elements leading to loss of package integrity.”

In addition to its own offerings, JLS can work with customers to implement complete line solutions, Souser says.

“We offer full turnkey line integration capabilities — we will take responsibility for the throughput of the line,” he says. “For example, we don’t make palletizing solutions, but we can often provide them. We have partners that can help us provide a complete solution for our customers.

“JLS is a customer-centric company. We embrace a collaborative process to ensure that our customers receive the best-fit solution for their needs, even if that means it doesn’t come from us,” he adds.

The company’s Customer Support Team (CST) handles all elements of after-sale support including spare parts kits as part of the installation package, spare parts inventory control, service agreements with periodic visits, customer training, remote monitoring, customized predictive maintenance and system auditing.

“Our CST works as a cross-functional team to ensure that a high level of response is provided for all incoming service or parts requests,” Souser says. “CST is effectively the advocate for the customer within JLS and is charged with making sure that customer expectations are exceeded, not just met.”

Gene Graf, COO of Barron County Cheese, Barron, Wisconsin, in a testimonial on the company’s website discusses why Barron chose JLS Automation for its robotic technology.

“With the commissioning of the installation, it was the best experience that I’ve ever had with any type of installation of a high-tech piece of equipment,” Graf says. “JLS, their whole team from start to finish, walked us through everything where there was no question in our minds of what is our next step.”

He adds that the throughput of the robotic system has increased efficiencies versus the breaks seen within manual labor.

Looking to the future, Souser says JLS Automation is looking at more sustainable imbedded cleaning solutions for its equipment.

The company also is focusing more on inspection as part of the packaging operation, using 3-D cameras to look for surface abnormalities on cheese that customers cannot see with a conventional camera.

“With packaging inspection, we are able to ensure the cheese goes into the case as planned without people having to stand there and watch,” he says. “We think the concept of combining inspection with packaging operation will continue to grow, and we’ll continue to address that.”

The company also is closely watching the growing interest in augmented reality for support connection to reduce the amount of field service calls.

“It’s down the road but it’s coming — the use of artificial intelligence and learning systems to make things even smarter,” Souser says. “We don’t know where all that’s going to go, but there’s a lot of money behind it. We don’t have specific actions in play, but we’re paying attention to it as the potential next big frontier.”


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