Food Engineering

No breaks for this robot

April 1, 2008
Packaging work performed at light-speed allows line workers to focus on more demanding tasks.

An ABB Robotic IRB340 FlexPicker has replaced manual picking and packing at Zaini. It can identify 40 different product formats and 130 different product variations. Source: ABB.

Established in 1913, Zaini produced handcrafted chocolates, cocoa and confectionery. As the business grew, machinery was incorporated to help meet the growing demand. Today, Zaini produces a vast range of chocolates, confectionery, sugar-free sweets and seasonal items (such as Christmas confectionery, Valentine hearts and Easter eggs) at its two plants in Italy.

“We sell to supermarkets and retail outlets, and both are highly competitive markets,” explains Amerigo Pallanti, factory manager for Zaini. In competitive markets, even a small cost or efficiency advantage can determine just a holding or winning share. An additional consideration for Zaini is the seasonal nature of the confectionery business, with huge volumes between September and December, less so for Valentine’s Day through Easter, then tapering off until the following September. One solution to get a leg up on the competition was to automate the packaging line, which also frees employees to handle more demanding assignments.

The proposed solution had to be reliable, flexible, precise, adaptable and easy to operate, with equipment sensitive to changes in product format. PRB Packaging Systems came up with a combination of the ABB Robotics FlexPicker robot and PRB’s own F-30 vertical case packaging machine. The system also had to be capable of dealing with products that are not always aligned on the production line but follow each other at a predetermined distance.

The biggest challenge was to ensure the robot could handle up to 40 formats and 130 different iterations: Zaini’s range of bags holds 50 grams (1.76 oz) to one kilo (2.2 lb) of chocolates or sweets. The bags’ contents have different sizes and shapes (for example, small squares, round eggs, hard sweets), and there are different-sized packages for shipping and display, depending on the content and weight of the bags. In addition, the formats change every day.

The FlexPicker installation features an advanced machine vision system with an almost human ability to “see” up to 130 different product variations and adjust its activity accordingly with minimal supervision. As the pre-bagged items roll down the production line, a vision camera “sees” the format, and that data is used by the robot controller so the robot can pick and place items in the appropriate containers.

The FlexPicker met the chocolate challenge at Zaini’s Senago plant. It can handle 50g packages at a rate of 90 per minute and 1kg packages at 35 per minute, working two shifts (16 hours) a day, five days a week. Before the FlexPicker, no pick and place robot had ever taken on this level of complexity in a food or confectionery line. “We expected a lot from this machine, and we got everything we expected,” concluded Pallanti.

For more information:

Richard Tallian, ABB, 720-889-4003, richard.tallian@us.abb.com.