October 27, 2021
Tasteful Selections, located south of Bakersfield, CA, is a forward-thinking potato producer for not only offering bite-sized potatoes, but also employing state-of-the-art production technology. Core to the company is multi-generational potato farmers, originally hailing from Nebraska, who relocated to Arvin, CA to take advantage of its rich farmland and year-round growing season.
With planting and harvesting potatoes for more than 350 days a year, the company is truly “Field to Fork Fresh.” The entire planting, growing, harvesting and packaging processes are all owed by Tasteful Selections to ensure its high standards of quality, flavor, freshness, size uniformity and best practices for sustainability are maintained.
The company is always searching for business growth opportunities, such as pioneering the category of smaller potatoes to offer consumers a simpler and more convenient source of nutritious and tasty potatoes. When the company wanted to expand and optimize its potato production, Tasteful Selections saw robotic automation as the key.
“We are constantly planting, harvesting and picking the freshest product for our customers,” says Nathan Bender, Chief Operating Officer for Tasteful Selections. “We’re growing so fast that without automation, we can’t keep up.”
In fact, the company has grown from approximately 100 people to around 900 people in just a few years. A feat they attribute to innovating and investing in automation, including 11 FANUC M-410iB palletizing robots and 5 FANUC M-3iA Delta robots for case packing that are equipped with Soft Robotics’ mGrip soft gripper. “What we’re trying to do is flatten our curve of our costs, so we can provide a great service to our customers and keep our pricing down,” says Ernie Waldo, Plant Manager for Tasteful Selections. “As we’ve rolled out automation, it has been a real blessing to our employees to bring consistency to the line and bring consistency to our costs.”
The company first started its robotics automation journey with installing palletizers using Schneider Packaging, a FANUC Approved Systems Integrator. Tasteful Selections liked Schneider’s OptiStak System, which creates “recipes” for the layers of boxes to be stacked on the pallets. “They have been turnkey, out of the box, minimal programming that we needed to do on our end and super, super successful on creating consistencies throughout our plant,” says Waldo.
The palletizers have also helped to keep Tasteful Selections’ employees safer with reducing the number of accidents and injuries. The pallets can be 90-92 inches tall and require the repetitive action of lifting 50-pound boxes to stack them.
“We were able to come up with a very modular, unique design for our palletizers,” says Justin McHenry, Vice President of Plant Operations for Tasteful Selections. “It’s capable of picking up any one of our boxes in this facility, stacking a pallet as high as will fit in the back of any refrigerated truck and does all that without requiring any tooling change.”
As the company increased the speed of the processing lines, manually packing the bags of potatoes in boxes became an issue. The packing space did not allow for additional line staff. Additionally, the company wanted to minimize the human touch points to ensure the best food safety and quality practices.
“We want to make sure our potatoes are the safest they can be from farm to fork,” says Lindsey Mebane, Food Safety Manager for Tasteful Selections. “Before we had the robotics, everything was done by hand. For food safety, that is a little bit of a concern because there are more hands touching the product. Granted, they are wearing gloves, but there’s still human contact.”
However, quality was also a concern since Tasteful Selections does everything it can to minimize the bumps the potatoes experience. Having a food safe and gentle handling robotic solution had to be of utmost importance.
Tasteful Selections approached Soft Robotics, designer and manufacturer of advanced technologies that enable automation of variable products, for help finding an end of arm tool (EoAT) robotic gripper that could reliably grab a shifting bag of potatoes while easing the positioning tolerance requirements of the robot and the machine vision imaging system guiding it. “The end of arm tooling for this application needed to be able to handle a lot of variability,” explains Ben Gibson, Applications Engineering Manager of Packaging Solutions at Soft Robotics. “These are mesh bags of baby potatoes. Depending on how the product settles on the belt, it can end up in lots of different shapes or sizes. We were able to handle all of this with a single end-of-arm tool.”
Plus, the unique gripper material allows the bags to be grabbed without any concern of damaging the product by applying too much force or using a rigid gripping tool. “We chose Soft Robotics because of the softness of the plastic and its integration with the FANUC robot,” says Emilio Lemus, Automation Manager for Tasteful Selections. “It speeds up the process a lot, and at the same time, takes care of our product the way we want it.”
The pneumatic actuated tool allows the operators to control the air pressure to either tighten or loosen the grip on the bags of potatoes. It also knows exactly the correct number of bags to fill a box as well as where to place them in the box.
“It helps with the quality—hands aren’t being harsh on them—and it helps with the overall efficiency because we are sending what we are supposed to be sending out, so it eliminates a lot of human error,” says Mebane.
In 2020, adding robotics also allowed the company another advantage—a way to easily social distance employees on the production line. “Because of the robotics, we had less people on the line, so that really helped with the social distancing,” says Mebane. “It allows the people to be farther apart because the person putting the bags in boxes isn’t standing right next to the person putting boxes on the pallet.”
With the investment in automation, Tasteful Selections has been able to grow very quickly as well as maintain the quality bite-sized potatoes customers and food retailers like Costco have come to love. Plus, this has all been done at an attractive price point. “If we don’t innovate, we’re not going to be competitive. Our prices will go up,” says McHenry. “We haven’t taken a price increase in 10 years on our product. We’re able to maintain that through automation.”
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