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Special edition: Robotics

Robots still a nascent technology in confectionery processing

By Jane Byrne , 30-Sep-2010
Last updated the 30-Sep-2010 at 13:16 GMT

Robots still a nascent technology in confectionery processing

Robot-based product packaging and palletizing remain the areas for quick wins in the confectionery sector but robots, albeit in the leading EU based confectioners, are gradually taking on more tasks a step earlier at the processing stage.

In the second part of our special edition on robotics, we caught up with two leading suppliers who reckon the potential for wider sector take up of robotic-based product handling is considerable.

Frank-Peter Kirgis, head of BU Robotics at ABB Switzerland, said recent confectionery specific robotic innovations such as hollow chocolate figurine mould handling or painting and decoration of confectionery products by a depositing system combined with robotics are bringing significant ROI and productivity gains to this sector.

The German, Italian and French confectionery based manufacturers, in that ranking, have the greatest take-up of robotic applications in their facilities, he said.

And Kirgis stresses that the push from the European confectionery industry has been notable in terms of driving creativity on the R&D side to devise processing focused robotic equipment that can help the chocolate and sweets producers offset increasing input cost pressures.

“Engineers have made great strides in the incorporation of vision technology to help with quality control and broaden robotic functionality, while ease of use and greater stability in the technology has accelerated the penetration of robotics even into the small and medium sized (SMEs) confectioners,” he argues.

He describes how ABB has recently boosted productivity for Swiss based confectioner Halba with the implementation of a robot that employs three dimensional tracking functionality and s capable of placing chocolate moulds for Easter egg or figurine products onto a spinning machine.

Kirgis said that cost is also becoming less of a barrier with the SME sector with software such as PickMaster enabling integrators to install robotic tooling in a much quicker turnaround time and elevate efficiency.

This programme, he explained, can integrate up to 8 cameras and 8 robots and multiple conveyors for each robot using the Cognex vision system, as well as housing quality control/inspection capabilities, and also includes functions for advanced mixing and sorting.

“Upskilling of operators is also becoming less of an issue with a lot of the new robotic equipment coming onto the market. While advanced in terms of the technology employed, the tooling is not that sophisticated at the user end.

So this factor, combined with shorter installation times, is driving down the investment outlay required,” he told this publication.

However, Geoff Pegman, managing director of UK based RU Robots, and an executive board member of the European Robotics Research Network (EURON), said suppliers see the SME sector, which makes up 99.1 per cent of the EU confectionery and wider food industry, as the future market with relatively few firms using robots in any shape or form.

“These companies generate 48.7 per cent of food and drink turnover and employ 63 per cent of the sector’s workforce but robotic tooling has not really infiltrated this scale of production, and we estimate that this is where the greatest potential for tailored applications lies,” he told ConfectioneryNews.com.

Kirgis said that ABB, which has the greatest number of robotic installations in the world, is working to create networks involving integrators, inventors, and handling and vacuum equipment manufacturers to tackle challenges that persist in developing robotic systems for industries involving the handling of delicate goods such as chocolate or cakes.

“Greater mobility and flexibility of product handling at even higher speed is what the industry requires but collaboration with the various stakeholders is needed to model systems around a particular sector’s challenges,” he explained.

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