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From: Food Quality & Safety magazine, December/January 2005

Picky Robots

Scrupulous Automation Funnels the Scrumptious for Swiss Chocolate Maker.

by Bernard Fenner

Swiss chocolate manufacturer, Chocolat Frey, is benefiting from an investment in a high-speed robotic line that copes with 40 different packaging formats every day. The new Sigpack Systems line, which consists of eight Delta Robots, has reduced manual handling at Chocolat Frey’s Buchs factory by placing chocolates into blister packs, which are then loaded into cartons.

Chocolate is emblematic of Switzerland just as Hershey is in the United States. What started out as a small, family run business has now become the country’s largest chocolate manufacturer. However, Chocolat Frey pledges to keep up the high quality in order to maintain a homemade taste to it products.

To further improve its product quality and productivity as well as reduce manual handling, Chocolate Frey turned to fellow Swiss company, Sigpack Systems, a maker of packaging platforms, for a new robotic line.

Having already used Sigpack Systems’ packaging robots, Chocolat Frey was confident in its order of the line. Now in operation, the line fills plastic trays with chocolates and accommodates 40 different packaging formats every day.

The new robotic line had to be integrated into existing machines, known as cartoners and closers. The equipment's flexibility allows both chocolates and blister packs, in many different shapes and sizes, to be handled.

“One of the main arguments for choosing Sigpack Systems was the simplicity of the software changes needed to accommodate new packaging formats,” says Andrew Ettlin, project manager at Chocolat Frey. “Indeed, this simplicity allows us to react quickly and securely to new demands from the market.”

Containers are moved to the robot line from a blister de-stacker. The blister packs are recognized by a highly advanced vision system and information on both position and location is transmitted to the robot motion controller. The vision system also recognizes the chocolates and information on their position and location is transmitted to the robot's motion controller, enabling each robot to pick up the products precisely and place them in the correct place in the blister pack. The selection of the correct suction head is key for success in this application.

Once the blister packs have been filled, they must then be placed in their boxes. These are supplied by an existing cartoner and placed in position for a robot module. The filled blister packs are recognized once again by optical processing, securely grasped by the robot and placed in the box. The handling of the blister packs places very stringent demands on the technology involved. In this case, it requires the use of a special tool, developed especially for filled blister packs of chocolates. The same tool also places pads in the boxes before the latter is finally closed.

A Delta robot also closes the box or adds the lid, either folding the attached lid into the closed position or placing a separate lid onto the box.

Manual packing is still needed for infrequently required product formats. In deciding the equipment layout, it was therefore necessary to establish the correct combination and balance of automation and manual work.

“It is not economic to fully automate the packaging of low volume product formats,” says Bernard Fenner, vice president marketing at Sigpack Systems. “A consistent, logical, overall design must be the prime consideration in the acquisition of equipment of this type.”

Ettlin describes this Chocolat Frey robotics project as an interesting challenge, due to the widest possible mix of different communications and work levels involved, as well as the diverse range of technical demands. Chocolat Frey foresees plenty of scope for further automation using robots in the future.

Bernard Fenner is vice president of marketing for Sigpack Systems (Beringen, Switzerland. Reach him at 41 0 52 674 74 19 or bernard.fenner@sigpacksystems.com.

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