Title:
FOOD STACKING LOADING APPARATUS
Kind Code:
A1


Abstract:
An apparatus is provided for loading stacked food product into packages. Open top containers are arranged in rows and movable into a loading station. A shuttle conveyor has a retractable and extendable conveying surface, the conveying surface having an end region extendable to a position arranged above the containers of a row of the containers. A guiding and pushing apparatus is arranged above the row and includes guides that are lowered to capture a row of stacked food products on the conveying surface, and plungers within the guides that lower and press a top of the stacks. When the conveying surface is retracted from beneath the guides and the row of containers, the guides are lowered further, adjacent to the containers, and the plungers are lowered with respect to the guides to push the stacks into the containers.



Inventors:
Sandberg, Glenn (New Lenox, IL, US)
Wrona, James (Mokena, IL, US)
Pasek, James E. (Tinley Park, IL, US)
Application Number:
10/923097
Publication Date:
02/23/2006
Filing Date:
08/20/2004
Primary Class:
Other Classes:
53/252, 53/517
International Classes:
B65B3/04
View Patent Images:
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Primary Examiner:
GERRITY, STEPHEN FRANCIS
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
Klintworth & Rozenblat IP LLP (Chicago, IL, US)
Claims:
The invention claimed is:

1. An apparatus for loading food product into open top containers movable into a loading station, comprising: a conveyor having a circulating conveying surface, said conveying surface having a moveable end region positionable over a container and movable to deposit food product into said container; and a pushing device arranged above the container and adapted to push food product into the container as said conveying surface end region is moved.

2. The apparatus according to claim 1, comprising a guiding device arranged with said pushing device, said guiding device arranged to capture said food product on said conveyor, said pushing device arranged to push food product from within said guiding device into said container.

3. An apparatus for filling food product into a row of open top containers movable into a loading station, comprising: a conveyor having a circulating conveying surface, said conveying surface having a movable end region positionable over a container and movable to deposit food product into said container; and a guiding device arranged above the container and adapted to guide food product into the container as said conveying surface end region is moved.

5. The apparatus according to claim 4, wherein said guiding device comprises a guide cylinder, said guide cylinder movable from an elevated position to a first lowered position to capture said food product on said conveying surface, and to a second lowered position below said conveying surface and adjacent to the container.

6. The apparatus according to claim 5, wherein said guide cylinder comprises a pair of facing concave guides that are displaceable away from each other to open up a clearance between said facing concave guides at a bottom of said guide cylinder.

7. The apparatus according to claim 5, further comprising a movable plunger within said guide cylinder, said movable plunger movable from an elevated position within said guide cylinder to a lowered position with respect to said guide cylinder to expel food product from said cylinder.

8. An apparatus for loading food products into packaging, comprising: a food product producing device; a conveyor having a frame supporting a conveying surface formed by an endless circulating belt, said conveying surface having a movable lead end, said food product producing device having an outlet that delivers food products onto a base end of said conveying surface, said conveying surface delivering said food products from said base end to said lead end and beyond said lead end; a guiding device arranged above said conveying surface adjacent said lead end, said guiding device comprising a guide frame supporting a guide cylinder above said conveying surface at said lead end when said lead end is in a first position, wherein said guide cylinder is movable vertically past said lead end of said conveying surface when said lead end of said conveying surface is moved to a second position with respect to said guide cylinder; and a pushing device comprising a plunger mounted within said guide cylinder, said plunger vertically movable from a raised position within said guide cylinder to a lowered position to expel food products from within said guide cylinder when said lead end is in said second position.

9. The apparatus according to claim 8, wherein said guide cylinder comprises opposing concave guide plates, said guide plates tiltable away from each other to open up said guide cylinder at a bottom thereof and tiltable toward each other to reorient said guide plates to a vertical orientation.

10. The apparatus according to claim 8, comprising a splash plate supported by said frame and located below said conveying surface and having an opening corresponding in a vertical alignment with said guide cylinder, said opening sized and shaped to receive a bottom portion of said guide cylinder when moved downward.

11. The apparatus according to claim 8, comprising a supply of open top containers movable to register an open top container beneath said guide cylinder to receive food product from said guide cylinder.

12. The apparatus according to claim 8, wherein said food product producing device comprises a food pafty-molding machine.

13. The apparatus according to claim 8, wherein said food product producing device comprises a slicing machine.

14. The apparatus according to claim 8, wherein said guide cylinder has a substantially circular cross section.

15. The apparatus according to claim 8, wherein said guide cylinder has a substantially rectangular cross section.

16. The apparatus according to claim 8, wherein said guide cylinder comprises opposing concave guide plates, said guide plates tiltable away from each other to open up said guide cylinder at a bottom thereof and tiltable toward each other to reorient said guide plates to a vertical orientation, and comprising a pair of pivot bars, wherein each guide plate is mounted on a pivot bar, said pivot bars pivotally mounted, and a lever mounted to each pivot bar, and at least one pivot pneumatic cylinder, said pivot pneumatic cylinder operatively connected to said pivot bars, said pivot pneumatic cylinder operable to displace said levers to pivot said pivot bars.

17. The apparatus according to claim 16, wherein said guiding device comprises a center plate, said pivot bars pivotally mounted to said center plate, said center plate supporting said guide cylinder.

18. The apparatus according to claim 8, wherein said guiding device comprises: a center plate rotatably supporting said pivot bars; a main pneumatic cylinder; and an elevated plate supported by said main pneumatic cylinder between an elevated position and first lowered position, said center plate supported by said elevated plate wherein said guide cylinder is moved down onto said conveying surface.

19. The apparatus according to claim 18, wherein said guiding device comprises: an intermediate plate connected to said center plate and supported by said elevated plate via a guide pneumatic cylinder, actuation of said guide pneumatic cylinder moving said center plate such that said guide cylinder is moved from an elevated position above said conveying surface to a second lowered position wherein an end of said guide cylinder is below said conveying surface.

20. The apparatus according to claim 19, wherein said pushing device comprises a rod connected to said plunger, said rod extending axially into said guide cylinder and slidable with respect to said guide cylinder, said rod connected to a pusher drive plate, said pusher drive plate connected to said elevated plate via a pusher pneumatic cylinder, actuation of said pusher pneumatic cylinder moving said plunger with respect to said guide cylinder.

Description:

TECHNICAL FIELD OF THE INVENTION

The invention relates to fill and packaging apparatus. The invention relates to an apparatus that produces food products and places the food products in packaging.

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

In the production of packaged food products, a typical arrangement comprises a food product patty former, such as a FORMAX F26 or MAXUM700 food patty forming machine, a sheet interleaving device and a take away conveyor to produce a stream of stacked patties with interleaved paper separators. Such an arrangement is disclosed for example in U.S. Pat. No. 3,952,478 or U.S. Ser. No. 60/540,022, filed Jan. 27, 2004, both herein incorporated by reference. The stacks are transported away from the patty-forming machine and manually placed into packaging.

The packaging of the stacked patties is labor-intensive.

The present inventors have recognized the advantage of reducing the reliance on manual labor in packaging food products and particularly stacked food products. The present inventors have recognized that it would be advantageous to automate the packaging of food products, particularly stacked food products.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

The invention provides an automated system for loading food products into packaging. The invention is particularly adapted to effectively load food product stacks into packaging.

The invention provides an apparatus for loading food product into open top containers arranged in a row and movable into a loading station. The apparatus includes a conveyor having a retractable and extendable or movable conveying surface, the conveying surface arranged above the loading station and having an end region positionable over the row of containers and retractable to deposit food products into the containers; and a pushing device arranged above the row of containers and adapted to push food product into the row of containers as the conveying surface end region is retracted. The apparatus can also comprise a guiding device arranged with the pushing device, the guiding device arranged to capture the food products on the conveyor, the pushing device arranged to push food products from within the guiding device into the row of containers.

According to another aspect, the invention provides an apparatus for loading food product into open top containers arranged in a row and movable into a loading station. The apparatus includes a conveyor having a retractable and extendable, or movable conveying surface, the conveying surface arranged above the loading station and having an end region positionable over the row of containers and retractable to deposit food products into the containers; and a guiding device arranged above the row of containers and adapted to guide food products into the row of containers as the conveying surface end region is retracted.

According to another aspect of the invention, the guiding device comprises a plurality of guide cylinders, the guide cylinders movable from an elevated position to a first lowered position to capture the food products on the conveyor, and to a second lowered position below the conveyor and adjacent to the row of open top containers.

The guide cylinders can each comprise a pair of facing concave guides that are displaceable away from each other to open up a clearance between the facing concave guides at a bottom of the guide cylinders.

The apparatus can comprise a movable plunger within each guide cylinder, the movable plunger movable to an elevated position within the guide cylinder to a lowered position with respect to the cylinder to expel food product from the guide cylinder.

The apparatus can comprise a splash plate located below the conveying surface and having an opening corresponding in a vertical alignment with each guide cylinder, the opening sized and shaped to receive a bottom portion of each guide cylinder when moved downward.

The apparatus can receive food patties from a food patty-molding machine or slices from a food product-slicing machine.

According to a preferred embodiment, the guiding device comprises a center plate pivotally supporting pivot bars and opposing arcuate guides carried by the pivot bars, the arcuate guides forming a guide cylinder openable to capture a stack on the conveying surface and closable to guide said stack in vertical downward movement. The guiding device includes a main pneumatic cylinder and an elevated plate supported by the main pneumatic cylinder between an elevated position and first lowered position. The guide cylinder is supported by the elevated plate and the guide cylinder is moved down onto the conveying surface to capture a stack thereon by action of the main pneumatic cylinder.

The guiding device can include an intermediate plate supporting the guide cylinder and supported by the elevated plate via a guide pneumatic cylinder, actuation of the guide pneumatic cylinder moving the guide cylinder from a position above the conveying surface to a second lowered position wherein an end of the guide cylinder is below the conveying surface.

The pushing device can comprise a rod connected to a plunger within the guide cylinder, the rod extending axially into the guide cylinder and slidable with respect to the guide cylinder. The rod is connected to a pusher drive plate, the pusher drive plate connected to the elevated plate via a pusher pneumatic cylinder, actuation of the pusher pneumatic cylinder moving the plunger with respect to the guide cylinder.

The apparatus of the invention allows for rapid loading of food products, particularly stacks of food products into product packaging. The apparatus of the invention allows for maintaining a neat verticality of the stacks being loaded into the packaging.

Numerous other advantages and features of the present invention will be become readily apparent from the following detailed description of the invention and the embodiments thereof, from the claims and from the accompanying drawings.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

FIG. 1 is a schematic, fragmentary, elevational view of a food product forming and packaging system incorporating the invention;

FIG. 2A is an enlarged, fragmentary sectional view taken generally along line 2A-2A of FIG. 1 with the apparatus shown in a first stage of operation;

FIG. 2B is a fragmentary sectional view taken generally along line 2B-2B of FIG. 2A with the apparatus shown in a first stage of operation;

FIG. 3A is an enlarged, fragmentary sectional view taken generally along line 2A-2A of FIG. 1 with the apparatus shown in a second stage of operation;

FIG. 3B is a fragmentary sectional view taken generally along line 3B-3B of FIG. 3A with the apparatus shown in a second stage of operation;

FIG. 4A is an enlarged, fragmentary sectional view taken generally along line 2A-2A of FIG. 1 with the apparatus shown in a third stage of operation;

FIG. 4B is a fragmentary sectional view taken generally along line 4B-4B of FIG. 4A with the apparatus shown in a third stage of operation;

FIG. 5A is an enlarged, fragmentary sectional view taken generally along line 2A-2A of FIG. 1 with the apparatus shown in a fourth stage of operation;

FIG. 5B is a fragmentary sectional view taken generally along line 5B-5B of FIG. 5A with the apparatus shown in a fourth stage of operation; and

FIG. 5C is a fragmentary sectional view taken generally along bent line 5C-5C of FIG. 1;

FIG. 6 is a schematic diagram illustrating the control scheme of the invention;

FIG. 7A-7C are schematic views showing the coordinated movements of components of the invention;

FIG. 8 is a fragmentary, perspective view of the apparatus of FIG. 2A;

FIG. 9 is an enlarged, fragmentary perspective view of a portion of the apparatus of FIG. 2A;

FIG. 10 is an end view taken generally along line 10-10 of FIG. 9;

FIG. 11 is a bottom perspective view taken generally along line 11-11 of FIG. 10;

FIG. 12 is a sectional view of a plunger taken generally along line 12-12 of FIG. 5C; and

FIG. 13 is a schematic diagram illustrating another embodiment of the invention.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE PREFERRED EMBODIMENTS

While this invention is susceptible of embodiment in many different forms, there are shown in the drawings, and will be described herein in detail, specific embodiments thereof with the understanding that the present disclosure is to be considered as an exemplification of the principles of the invention and is not intended to limit the invention to the specific embodiments illustrated.

FIG. 1 illustrates a package loading system 10 of the invention. A product producing apparatus 12, such as a patty forming apparatus with a sheet interleaving device that produces food products 14, such as formed patties, and accumulates the food products in stacks 17 feeds the apparatus 10. The stacks 17 are transported on a conveyor assembly 16 to, and onto, a shuttle conveyor 52. The shuttle conveyor transports the stacks 17 to a loading station 61 arranged above a packaging station 60. The stacks 17 are loaded by the loading apparatus into open top containers 62 in the row 62a in the packaging station 60 as described below.

The packaging station 60 can be a packaging machine such as a Multivac R530, available from Multivac, Inc. of Kansas City, Mo., U.S.A. At the loading station 61, the shuttle conveyor 52 delivers rows of stacks 17 into containers 62 in the form of a group of rows of pockets 62a, 62b, 62c formed in a lower web of film 63 by the packaging machine 60. Downstream of the loading station 61, in the direction D shown in FIG. 2A, the rows of pockets 62a, 62b, 62c filled with product, are sealed by an upper web of film (not shown). The direction D is shown as being perpendicular to a direction A, the direction of stack movement of the conveyor 52. The direction D however can be at any desired angle to the direction A, depending on the installation of the equipment.

FIGS. 1, 2A, 2B and 6 illustrate that the shuttle conveyor 52 includes a stationary frame 63 that supports an endless belt 80. The belt 80 forms a top conveying surface 84 and a bottom region 88. The belt 80 is wrapped around a stationary belt drive roller 89, an upper forward roller 90, an end roller 91, a bottom forward roller 92, an idler roller 93, a stationary bottom roller 94, and a stationary bottom back roller 95. The rollers 90, 91, 92, 93 are rotationally mounted on front end sideplates (not shown) to be translated to extend or retract along the direction B together. The bottom region 88 of the belt, being wrapped around the movable idler roller 93 and the stationary bottom roller 94, effectively creates a belt accumulation region 96 between these rollers 93, 94. Controlled translation of the sideplates holding the rollers 90, 91, 92, 93 controls the extension or retraction of the conveying surface 84 of the belt 80, and the position of an end region 100 of the conveying surface 84.

Two spaced-apart, side-by-side carriages 97 are provided. Each carriage 97 is connected to a corresponding front end sideplate (not shown). The rollers 90, 91, 92, 93 are effectively connected to the side-by-side carriages 97 (only one shown), via the front end sideplates. The carriages 97 are connected to a parallel pair of endless positioning belts 98 (only one shown). A servomotor 112 is operatively connected to the positioning belts 98, via drive pulleys 99, to drive an upper surface 98a of the belts 98 in either an advancing direction or a retracting direction. The servomotor 112 thus controls the retraction and extension of the end region 100 via movement of the carriages 97. Another servomotor 114 is operatively connected to the drive roller 89 and controls the circulation speed of the conveying belt 80. A more detailed description of a shuttle conveyor and servomotor drive components is presented in U.S. Pat. No. 6,669,005, and is herein incorporated by reference.

A controller 150, such as a programmable logic controller (PLC), a microprocessor, a CPU or other control device, is signal-connected to the servomotors 112, 114. The controller 150 synchronizes movement of the end region 100 of the conveyor 80 via the servomotor 112, and the speed of the belt 80 via the servomotor 114, with the movement of the web of film 63 of the packaging machine 60.

FIG. 1 illustrates three loading apparatuses 160a, 160b, 160c arranged above three rows of open top containers 62a, 62b, 62c. The loading apparatuses 160a, 160b, 160c are carried by a frame 166 that is mounted at a rear end to the stationary frame 63 of the shuttle conveyor 52 and supported at a front end by columns 167 and adjustable feet 168.

The loading apparatus 160a is shown in FIGS. 2A-5 and 8-12. The loading apparatus 160b and 160c are identically configured. The loading apparatus 160a is located adjacent to the end region 100 of the shuttle conveyor 52.

As illustrated in FIGS. 2A and 2B, the frame 166 includes walls 172, 174 that are connected by a top plate 180. An elevated support plate 184 is supported by posts 188 from the top plate 180. Two main pneumatic cylinders 190, 192 are mounted to the elevated support plate 184 and includes rods 190a, 192a that are fastened to a movable intermediate plate 204 by a fastener plate assembly 205 and fasteners 205a (see FIG. 5A for an unobstructed view). The fastener plate assembly 205 includes a length adjustable connection 205b between the rods 190a, 192a and the fastener plate assembly 205.

A movable guide plate 210 is located below the intermediate plate 204. Two guide cylinders 216, 218 are mounted to the intermediate plate 204 and include rods 216a, 218a fastened to the guide plate 210.

A plunger drive plate 230 is located above the intermediate plate 204. A plunger cylinder 234 is mounted to the plunger drive plate 230 and includes a rod 234a fastened to the guide plate 210 via a length adjustable fastener plate assembly 235 similar to the fastener plate assemblies 205.

As also shown in FIGS. 5C, and 9-11, arcuate food product guides 240 are fastened to pivot bars 242, 244 that are elongated in a lateral direction. The pivot bars are carried by end plates 245, 246 that are fastened to opposite ends of a central plate 247. The pivot bars are journaled for pivoting movement on the end plates about pin bolts 247a. The pivot bar 242 is connected by the pin bolts 247a to pivot with a pair of pivot levers 250, 252 at opposite ends thereof. The pivot bar 244 is connected by the pin bolts 247a to rotate with a pair of pivot levers 254, 256 at opposite ends thereof. The pairs of pivot levers at each end of the central plate 247 are pivotally connected at pin bolt connections 257b, 257c to a connection plate 257 that is fixedly connected to a rod 260a, 262a of a respective pivot cylinder 260, 262 by a fastener 257a. The pivot cylinders 260, 262 are mounted on the central plate 247 via an attachment plate 259 that is fastened to the central plate 247. As can be understood in FIG. 10, when the pneumatic cylinder 262 retracts the rod 262a upwardly, the connecting plate 257 is drawn upwardly and the lever 256 pivots counterclockwise as the lever 252 pivots clockwise. The pneumatic cylinder 260 is configured to operate in tandem with the pneumatic cylinder 262. The pivot bars 242, 244, being fixed to rotate with the pivot levers, will pivot in the corresponding directions, as will the arcuate guides 240 mounted to the pivot bars.

The central plate 247 is supported on a plurality of posts 260 that are fixedly connected to the guide plate 210.

The arcuate guides 240 are grouped in opposing pairs to form guide cylinders 266. Although the guide cylinders shown have substantially circular cross sections, the invention is not limited to such shape. Substantially rectangular cross section cylinders or other shape cross section cylinders are also encompassed by the invention. Within each guide cylinder 266 is a reciprocal plunger 270. The plunger is supported on a plunger rod 272 that is fastened at its upper end to the plunger drive plate 230.

In operation, as shown in FIGS. 2A and 2B, the guide cylinders 266 are spread open at their bottom ends by action of the pivot cylinders 260, 262 extending the rods 260a, 262a downward.

As shown in FIGS. 3A, 3B and 7A, the main cylinders 190, 192 then lower the guide cylinders 266 to capture a row of food product stacks 17 on the end region 100 of the conveyor belt 80. While a leading edge 100a of the end region 100 of the conveying surface 84 is retracting, the plungers 270 are lowered to press a top of the stacks 17 within the guide cylinders 266. At this point the stacks 17 that are captured within the guide cylinders 266 may only be partially supported on the conveying surface 84. The pressure from the plungers 270 along the top surface of the stacks prevents the stacks 17 from tipping forwardly.

The pivot cylinders 260, 262 are then actuated to reorient the arcuate guides 240 to a vertical orientation to make the guide cylinders 266 conform closely to the perimeter of the stacks 17, and to guide the stacks 17 for vertical downward movement.

As shown in FIGS. 4A, 4B and 7B, as the leading edge 100a of the conveying surface 84 is retracted from beneath the stacks 17 that are captured by the guide cylinders 266, the guide cylinders 266 and the plungers 270 are then driven down, past the conveying surface 84 and into a row of holes 274 in an underlying splash plate or shield 275. The guide cylinders 266 and the plungers 270 are driven downward by action of the pneumatic cylinders 216, 218 extending their respective rods 216a, 218a to drive the plate 210 a distance from the vertical position of the plate 204.

As shown in FIGS. 5A, 5B and 7C, the plungers 270 are then driven further to dispense the stacks 17 out of the guide cylinders 266, and to place or push the stacks 17 into the open top pockets 62 of the row 62a or other containers located below the plastic plate 275. The plungers 270 are driven by action of the pneumatic cylinder 234, wherein the rod 234a is retracted into the cylinder 234 to drive cylinder 234 and the plate 230 downward with respect to the plate 210.

As can be seen by viewing FIG. 4A and FIG. 5A, the plunger drive plate 230 vertically passes the plate 204. This passing is made possible by the plate 204 having a rectangular void 204a on a back side thereof which allows the plate 230 to pass vertically behind the plate 204, as seen in FIG. 8.

Hydraulic shock absorber cylinders 230a, 230b are adjustably fixed to the plunger drive plate 230 and have an impact pin that extends downwardly. These hydraulic shock absorbers are set to strike the guide plate 210 at a bottom of travel of the plunger drive plate 230 to effect a “knock” or rapid deceleration of the plungers 270 at their end of travel to assist in discharging the stacks 17 and separating the stacks 17 from the plungers 270.

The splash plate 275 preferably is composed of plastic, and acts as a debris and spray shield for surrounding areas below the shuttle conveyor.

After the loading apparatus 160a has discharged the stacks 17, all the pneumatic cylinders are reversed in operation simultaneously, except the pneumatic cylinders 160, 162, to return to the position and configuration shown in FIG. 2A, ready to load another row of stacks. The pneumatic cylinders 160, 162 are triggered to open the guide cylinders at some time after the guide cylinders are above and clear of the splash plate 275.

As can be understood from FIG. 1 and FIG. 7C, the loading apparatus 160a, 160b, and 160c are triggered sequentially as the leading edge 100a of the conveying surface 84 is retracted over the rows of containers 62a, 62b, 62c. FIG. 1 shows the loading apparatus 160a in a discharge position corresponding to FIG. 5A, while the loading apparatus 160b is in the position corresponding to FIG. 3A, while the loading apparatus 160c is in the position corresponding to FIG. 2A. Alternatively, the loading apparatuses 160a, 160b, 160c can simultaneously move the guide cylinders 266 and plungers 270 down to capture three rows of stacks on the conveying surface 84. From that position the guide cylinders and plungers can then be triggered sequentially to perform subsequent movements as the lead end 100a is retracted from beneath the rows of stacks.

As illustrated in FIG. 6, the central controller 150 can be used to coordinate the loading apparatuses 160a, 160b, 160c, particularly the movements of the guide cylinders 266 and the plungers 270 instigated by the pneumatic cylinders. An electronic-to-pneumatic interface 277 is pneumatically connected to the pneumatic cylinders 260, 262, 190, 192, 216, 218 and 234, and electronically signal-connected to the central controller 150. Based on a precise positioning attributes of the servomotors 112, 114 the pneumatic cylinders can be precisely triggered by the central controller 150 to be in synchronism with the position of the stacks 17 being transported on the shuttle conveyor 80. The central controller 150 also can communicate with the packaging apparatus 60 coordinating movement of the web 63 to deliver new open top containers 62 to the filling station 61.

As shown in FIG. 12, each plunger 270 is preferably a plastic, cup shaped element that is fastened by a screw 270a to the plunger rod 272. The plunger 270 can have a plurality of holes 270b to assist in preventing a vacuum occurring between the plunger 270 and the stacks 17 which would inhibit discharge of the stack 17. Also, the plunger 270 provides a tapered edge 270c which causes edge loading of the stack and which also prevent sticking of the stacks 17 to the plungers 270.

Rather than being fed by a patty forming apparatus, the system according to the invention can alternatively be fed by a slicing machine and which cuts slices from a loaf and deposits the slices on an output conveyor assembly, forming stacked drafts. The slicing machine can be of a type as described in U.S. Pat. Nos. 5,649,463; 5,704,265; and 5,974,925; as well as patent publications EP0713753 and WO99/08844, herein incorporated by reference. The slicing machine can also be a commercially available FORMAX FX180 machines, available from Formax, Inc. of Mokena, Ill., U.S.A. The conveyor assembly 16 can be one as described in U.S. Pat. No. 6,763,748, herein incorporated by reference. The conveyor assembly can include a staging conveyor to deliver rows of stacks to the shuttle conveyor 52, such as described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,810,149, herein incorporated by reference.

FIG. 13 illustrates an alternate loading system 1000. The system 1000 is similar to the system 10. Like parts are given the same reference number. This system 1000 is particularly advantageous for receiving sliced food product stacks 17 and loading those stacks 17 into containers in the form of pockets 62 arranged in rows 62a, 62b, 62c.

An off loading conveyor 1005 of a staging conveyor 1004 such as described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,810,149 or as commercially available as a FORMAX AUTOLOADER, from Formax, Inc. of Mokena, Ill., U.S.A.

The stacks 17 are deposited onto a movable conveyor 1010 having a driven endless belt 1012 with a top conveying surface 1014 that moves to the left as shown in FIG. 13. The movable conveyor 1010 includes a frame 1018 that is connected by at least one member or bracket 1020 to at least one carriage 1024. The carriage 1024 is connected to an indexing belt 1028 of an indexing conveyor 1030 that is selectively driven to translate the carriage 1024 along a length of the conveyor 1030 in either direction.

The loading apparatuses 160a, 160b, 160c are arranged above the conveying surface 1014 above the splash shield 275 and the rows of pockets 62a, 62b, 62c as per the first described embodiment.

In operation, rows of stacks 17 are loaded onto the conveying surface 1014 from the off loading conveyor 1004. The surface 1014 delivers the stacks to their positions as shown in FIG. 13. At these positions, the loading apparatuses 160a, 160b, 160c can cause the guide cylinders 266 to sequentially descend to capture the stacks as per the first described embodiment, or the guide cylinders 266 of the apparatuses 160a, 160b, 160c can descend at the same time to capture the three rows of stacks on the conveying surface.

The off loading conveyor 1004 is stopped and the indexing conveyor is controlled to drive the conveyor 1010 to the right at the same speed as the conveying surface 1014 is driven to the left. The stacks are thus effectively stationary with respect to the apparatuses 160a, 160b, 160c. When the leading edge 1034 of the conveying surface is removed from beneath the first captured row of stacks 17, the loading apparatus 160a drives the guide cylinders 266 downward to the holes 274 in the splash plate 275, past the conveyor 1010. The loading apparatuses 160b and 160c are similarly operated once the leading edge 1034 passes from beneath the respective captured rows of stacks 17. Once each row of containers 62a, 62b, 62c is filled, the loading apparatuses 160a, 160b, 160c respectively retract the guide cylinders 266 and plungers 270 upwardly as previously described. Alternately, once all three rows of containers 62a, 62b, 62c are filled the apparatuses 160a, 160b, 160c can all retract their perspective rows of guide cylinders 266 and plungers 270. The conveyor 1010 can be shifted to the left by operation of the indexing conveyor 1030 and the off load conveyor 1014 can begin again to load rows of stacks onto the conveying surface 1014. A new set of empty containers 62 corresponding to the rows 62a, 62b, 62c are indexed to positions beneath the apparatuses 160a, 160b, 160c.

As can be seen in the figures, wherever rods penetrate plates and are movable with respect thereto, a plastic bushing, sleeve, bearing or guide is provided to reduce friction and noise, and to ensure smooth operation of the apparatus.

Although pneumatic cylinders are used in the preferred embodiment to cause movement of the guide cylinders and plungers, such pneumatic cylinders could be replaced with a variety of types of drives all within the scope of the invention. Servo motor drives, hydraulic drives, linear actuators, and other drives are all encompassed by the invention.

From the foregoing, it will be observed that numerous variations and modifications may be effected without departing from the spirit and scope of the invention. It is to be understood that no limitation with respect to the specific apparatus illustrated herein is intended or should be inferred. It is, of course, intended to cover by the appended claims all such modifications as fall within the scope of the claims.