Robotics can help protect the product, like natural casing sausage, that could be damaged if handled using traditional mechanical methods.
Change is taking place in the meat-processing industry at lightning speed. New technologies are being introduced constantly – technologies that allow for increased line speeds and efficiencies throughout the operation, including automation in packaging.

This is especially true with the increasing employment of robotics – mechanical robots – in the packaging of hot dogs and sausage, says Tom Ivy, president of F. R. Drake, based in Waynesboro, Virginia, a leader in the loading of cylindrical meats and a part of Middleby Corp.’s processing and packaging technology division. “We make most of our automated equipment for use in the loading of hot dogs, sausages, and a few other products,” Ivy says. These products are sorted, conveyed and loaded at speeds up to 1,800 pieces a minute. Drake’s products include robotic loaders, collator-style loaders and launcher-style loaders.

The company was started by Fred Drake in 1979. Drake spent many years designing machines for the meat processing industry.

While robotic loading and packaging machines are new developments in the industry, automated loaders have been around for quite a while. “I’ve been in the industry for more than 30 years, and some of these machines have been used in the meat industry for 25 or 30 years,” says Tyrone Beatty, North American sales manager for Drake. But he points to a great advantage of the robotic machines. “They allow the meat processors to load various package configurations on a single line. The robotics allow new types of shapes of products,” he says.

Beatty says Drake robotics load products like natural casing sausage that could be damaged if traditional mechanical methods were used. The robots use high speed end-of-arm tooling. This accurate tooling makes it possible to handle variation in products, like curvature and a variety of consistencies, he says.

George Reed, vice president of engineering for Drake, says in 2013, the company didn’t produce or sell any robotics. A year later, the company was selling Fanuc robotics. This year, Drake is producing its own robotics and control systems designed specifically for its applications. “We are able to deliver a robotics loading system with a sanitary design and a single control system,” he says.

The company also produces collator-style loaders for use with hot dogs, sausages, snack sticks, pickles and other products. Collators are very fast – maximum of 1,800 pieces a minute. Launcher-style loaders are also sold, primarily to processors making delicate products, like soft cooked sausages. During sanitation, these loaders can easily be disassembled without tools.