Robotic solution speeds up cheese stick processing

03 April 2023

A fully automated production line employs two hygienic robots to process cheese into sticks and feed them to a packaging machine. This has raised the standard of hygiene – and doubled production capacity for Dutch family company, Vepo Cheese.

Talking about the automation project, Mark Verkleij, CEO at Vepo Cheese, said: “We are trying to continuously improve the cutting, grating, portioning and packaging of our semi-hard cheese and that is how the idea of an automated production line for our cheese sticks was born.” 

Like other food processing companies, Vepo Cheese has faced increased productivity and hygiene requirements. “Only as many people as necessary should touch the cheese directly,” said Hugo van Put, Technical Operations Manager at Vepo Cheese. “At the same time, we wanted to double the production capacity when cutting our cheese sticks ¬¬– from 5,000 to 10,000 pieces per hour. For this, we were looking for a strong automation partner.” They found it in system integrator Groba and KUKA. Today, the LAMBDA 405 with two KR AGILUS HM (Hygienic Machine) ensures fully automated operation. 

Because hygiene requirements in food processing are so high, a robot suitable for hy-gienic environments was needed for the production line. The hygienic version of the KR AGILUS meets these requirements. Corrosion-resistant surfaces, food-grade lubricants and the use of stainless-steel parts offer high levels of hygiene. The electrical interface is located underneath the robot f or ease of cleaning. 

The LAMBDA 405 is a cutting machine for individually packaged cheese snacks such as sticks. “Together with Groba, we have adapted the robot unit to our needs and our packaging machine,” said van Put. 

Easy operation
Today, all the operator has to do is select one of two pre-configured programs – depending on the type of cheese being processed. The cheese is then transported into the machine via a conveyor belt. Its length is measured via the distance between the cutting blade and the gripper and the number of cheese slices is calculated from this. The LAMBDA 405 then cuts the slices with a defined thickness, which influences the height of the sticks and the portion weight. A checkweigher ensures that the deviation of the weight per stick is kept to a minimum, giving the slicing machine a signal to cut thicker or thinner slices, if necessary.

These then fall onto a conveyor belt, which also serves as a buffer during the cheese change. Above the conveyor belt, a camera scans the position of the cheese slice – and passes the information on to the first KR AGILUS HM. In this way it knows exactly how to grip the slice and place it on the cutting plate. “This was the difficult part for us,” recounts Robin de Groot, Managing Director at Groba. “Because the robot has to grip the slice exactly and place it centrally under the blade so that the sides are the same length when cutting and no crumbs are produced. Initially, it was challenging to transfer the data from the camera to the robot. But thanks to the interface support from KUKA, it worked out.”

The camera also detects slices that do not meet certain minimum dimensions. These are discharged into a Eurobin to be made into grated cheese later. The second KR AGILUS HM picks up the finished cheese sticks with a vacuum spreading unit and places them in the cassettes of the packaging machine. “Where previously many steps were carried out manually, the new line now operates completely automatically,” said van Put. “Nobody touches the cheese, only the robot. This has not only increased hygiene and significantly minimised cutting loss, but also doubled our capacity.” 

“We used KUKA’s simulation software to run the movements of the robot virtually to identify any potential problems,” said de Groot, “This also allowed the customer to see how the plant would operate before it was physically up and running.”

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