Bob's Red Mill Case Study - Columbia/Okura

Robotic Palletizers Preserve Tradition and Taste

How integrated palletizing systems' have increased output while maintaining quality at the employee owned Bob's Red Mill.

While many health food producers have used the phrase “quality over quantity” far too few of these producers actually embody this sentiment. Thankfully, Bob’s Red Mill is not such a producer. Based out of Milwaukie, Oregon, Bob’s Red Mill provides whole grain food products such as almond flour, granola, and oatmeal, primarily distributing across the US and Canada, but have expanded to include international markets like South Korea and Japan.

Established in 1978 by Bob and Charlee Moore, the goal was to provide a product with the nutrients that many competitors leave out. Utilizing traditional quartz millstones to grind whole grains at a slow speed and cool temperature, not only preserves the nutrients but also preserves the fresh taste. Through the integration of this historic technology and modern packaging solutions, Bob’s Red Mill has taken a stance that says “quality and quantity”.

Rather than the corporate approach to expansion, Bob’s Red Mill has always catered toward local and smaller markets, while still maintaining relationships with larger distributors like Fred Meyer (Kroger). This sentiment culminated in 2008 when they relocated from their 130,000 square-foot facility to their current 325,000 square-foot facility. While this had obvious benefits such as increasing production space, the driving force behind the change was to expand on their gluten-free product production.

While they were one of the early adopters of gluten-free products in the early 80’s, it was with this shift in 2008 that allowed their gluten-free product production to flourish. With their new 58,200 square-foot gluten-free facility came the responsibility of keeping the two types of products separate. This required the development of an incredibly stringent testing facility, which ensures that gluten-free means gluten-free.

But how do you keep up with a rapidly expanding market when your production process requires time and patience to meet the quality Bob’s Red Mill is known for? While the milling process is based on historic tradition, their packaging and product handling take the opposite approach. When it comes to filling, handling, and palletizing, Bob’s Red Mill is immersed in the world of high tech automation. One such connection in this world was found in Curt Garrett of Garrett Packaging Systems, who provide an array of peripheral equipment such as metal detectors, check weighers, and palletizing solutions. Through this relationship, Garrett Packaging Systems introduced Bob’s Red Mill to Columbia/Okura LLC, expanding their reach into the world of automation.

When asked about how they utilize modern technology, Bob’s Red Mill plant and operations engineer Nick Chow explained, “having that [an automated palletizing system] allows us to grow as a company, to produce more, but without sacrificing food quality and safety of the operator”. This openness to adopt modern technology is what enables Bob’s Red Mill to use traditional methods while remaining as flexible as possible. This is what has led them partner with Columbia/Okura as their “go-to” palletizing solution provider.

Their first purchase in 2017 was a relatively simple system, with a few complications that only Columbia/Okura was able to tackle. Their palletized load required a hollow center where another case is placed to maximize load capacity. Bob’s Red Mill also wanted a system to increase throughput on their 18 lb. cases of flour. Columbia/Okura’s solution provided a custom, pivoting, vacuum end effector with their A1600 system. This custom end effector allows the product to be rotated 90 degrees from the direction of travel, providing a clever solution for their specific needs.

They purchased their second system in 2019 which was intended to take over a hand stacked 40 lb. flour case line. With heavier product and two lines to manage, the system was designed with Columbia/Okura’s highest performing robot, the Ai1800. When first seeing their new system in action, Chow explains “we realized just how fast this thing can go”. Another key change was swapping to a pressure regulated fork style end effector, which applies only the necessary pressure to the top of the case. However, what really set this system apart from their prior systems, was the integration of two lines and the expansion of peripheral equipment.

The second line did two things: reduce strain caused by hand stacking pallets and increased throughput. Where hand stacked loads took an hour and fifteen minutes to build, this new system builds loads in forty-five minutes. However, what Chow was more impressed with was the system’s functionality, explaining that “the system as a whole is just more robust; it’s well thought-out, it’s well-laid out, it’s got better components, the pallet magazine hasn’t really failed us on either of the robots and that’s a huge plus”.

For Nick Lux, Bob’s Red Mill plant foreman, “the biggest thing was the simplicity and theory of operation” that ties system components together. When speaking about the “lockout, tag out” system, Chow remarked, “you just pull the key out of the main panel, walk over wherever you need to open the gate, lock it in and it opens. It’s a lot easier from a safety standpoint because you know it’s down”. However, what Chow cites as the biggest benefit of Columbia/Okura systems, is the flexibility. “Flexibility is such a huge thing because we have so many different products. We have a variety of cases, so having built-in flexibility is a huge plus for us”.

In the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic, Bob’s Red Mill ordered another two-line system, recognizing an increase in demand for their products. According to Lux, “demand is up across the board… you have this weird split where snack foods are way up and health food is way up”. While keeping up with the necessary output has been a lot of work, maintaining social distance guidelines on Columbia/Okura systems has been much more manageable. “Having one and a half people per line is easier for Covid [control], because now we can spread people out. If we were smaller and things were more condensed, it would be really difficult because we would have to shut down lines”, Chow explained.

Their new system, which will be virtually identical to their current two-line system, is set for installation in early 2021 and will be palletizing granular products, opposed to the powder products currently being palletized by their two-line system. According to Chow, this system will integrate a new case packing technology that increases the speed bags are put in cases for palletizing. This will not only greatly increase throughput and system efficiency, but will also relieve the physical strain of hand-packing and loading product. This reduces the chance of injury and ensures the best possible conditions for the employee-owners.

While 2020 has been a struggle for many people, Bob’s Red Mill has tried to relieve some of that stress. As of 2010, Bob’s Red Mill has been 100% employee owned, reinforcing the principles Bob’s Red Mill were founded upon. They have also continued to give back to the community by partnering with a number of community oriented programs like “No Kid Hungry”. They’ve continued to donate large quantities of food to the Oregon Food Bank as they’ve done for decades. They were also the presenting sponsor for KGW’s Great Food Drive, which provided food for local families struggling to get the food they need. All this goes to show, that Bob’s Red Mill truly embodies their principle of “people over profit”.