Robots help cut waste and speed throughput in food production

16 March 2021

Robots are becoming a more familiar sight in food manufacturing plants today, but mostly undertaking end-of-line or packaging functions. In this application, however, robots are being employed to accurately cut blocks of cheese.

A UK-based cheese producer wanted to find an automated solution to help it more accurately cut cheese to enable it to reduce waste and increase throughput. 

Cheese is traditionally hard to cut ring. Cutting with a knife can result in breakage, and even the drag of a knife can cause damage. Ultrasonic cutting can offer a good solution. This method uses energy from microscopic vibrations of a blade to pass easily through the material. When paired with automation, ultrasonic technology can deliver a precise and accurate cutting solution.

The cheese producer contacted Elliptical Design, a bespoke machine solution provider for the food industry, to discuss automated cutting solutions. Ellipical Design brought industrial robots into the solution, using equipment from TM Robotics is the EMEA distributor for Shibaura Machine (formerly Toshiba Machine). 

For this particular application, robots were installed for three different functions. The first two are pick-and-place applications, with the addition of vision and conveyor tracking capabilities. One application involves the robot picking up a large, half moon piece of cheese and putting it into a plastic packaging, while in the other, the robot picks up three small pieces of cheese at once and putting them into packets. For these applications, TM Robotics supplied a power, IP65-rated SCARA robot, which is able to work at full speed without thermal overload. The robot has a cycle time of 0.3 seconds and is capable of 120 cycles per minute in 24-hour continuous operation. It has an arm length of 700mm and a maximum payload of 10kg.

A cutting solution
The final robotic application was the ultrasonic cutting system. Within this process, the robot picks up a 10kg piece of cheese and moves it onto a weigh station, and then a cutting station. There, it is cut in half using ultrasonic technology. 

For this system, TM Robotics supplied a strong, yet flexible IP65 rated six-axis industrial robot which has a  maximum cycle time of up to 0.9 seconds and repeatability of ±0.03mm.
One challenge presented by the application involved the fine-tuning of the robot’s vision system. Fine tuning of the robots vision system was needed to ensure that the robot was picking up cheese in the right place and being able to put it down as accurately as needed  – there is a very slim margin for error in plastic tote placing.

When the cheese is placed on the conveyor it is still slightly soft. Rather than a round shape, it has a slightly flat side. The team’s engineers needed to find the right algorithm in the vision programme to ensure the robot could accurately identify non-uniform shapes and pick the cheese accurately.

On the factory floor
Prior to the project, the manufacturer’s production process was almost entirely manual, and took between four and five days to produce the quota of cheese needed each week. Now, with the bespoke ultrasonic cutting system and robots, the same production quotas can be reached in just two days, due to increased throughput and reduced waste. 

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