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Case study: Salami under control

Schafft/Unilever, Germany

High-speed robots with specially developed grippers make sure that salamis are packaged at the highest cycle rates at Schafft/Unilever’s plant in Ansbach, Germany.

Since 1972, Bifi salami has been a mainstay in the German snack market. A product of Unilever, Bifi salamis had long been manufactured in the Bavarian town of Anspach, with certain aspects of the production done manually, such as insertion of the salamis in the rollstock machine manually. 
Then in 2006, the company made the switch to an automated solution with IRB 340 FlexPicker robots from ABB using gripper technology to take the six different sausage types from the conveyor belt and insert them in a rollstock machine.

Tough customer demands

Unilever commissioned robomotion GmbH from Stuttgart to plan and design the automation solution. The aim was to use a rollstock machine to its maximum capacity with the specified dimensions. The automation solution had to be ultra flexible so that six different products could be packed with one system and so it could be retrofitted for future products. Robomotion’s task was made more difficult because the customer placed stringent requirements on the precision and reliability of the insertion process – not to mention major deviations between the products. By planning and processing the project in partnership, it was possible to install and commission the entire system at Unilever within 10 days.

Outstanding grippers

The mechanical gripping technology helped to increase the process reliability sharply, thus raising the production volume per robot. Increasing the speed of the handling process also increases the risk of product loss. This is where the positive fit principle of mechanical grippers comes into its own.
Not only can the physical loads lead to a high level of material loss, but also to a large number of empty lifts. Subsequent processes are also affected, for instance when packages are heat-sealed empty and have to be separated at the end of the process, or when packaging machines fail because the objects fall uncontrolled into the machine, causing disruptions and stoppages.
     The mechanical grippers offer benefits over other technology because the positive-fit grip makes it almost impossible to drop the item, even at maximum accelerations and speeds. Picking and placing is carried out with great precision. 

Increasing production = saving costs

Unilever wanted to increase the packaging machine’s production and therefore turned to robomotion in the summer of 2005. This specialist in high-speed handling for hygiene-critical areas determined which streamlining measures could be used and how process reliability using mechanical grippers could be improved compared with previous technology.

     Says Unilever project manager Torsten Rütze: “We were convinced by robomotion’s technology. Thanks to the performance data produced there was no problem justifying the new investment. The tailored integration into our production environment saved us both time and money. 



Efficient and flexible system

The new picking system from robomotion uses IRB 340 FlexPickers with grippers developed by Schunk. The system used for picking and placing Uniliver Bifi salamis offers a range of benefits, including:
• A 25 percent increase in production
• Efficiency is so great, a robot was eliminated from the process
• No pre-arranging or pre-placing of the salamis prior to picking is necessary
• Flexible system thanks to software, image processing, rapid kinematics and angle grippers, which allow for quick switching to picking parts with new dimensions

Meeting safety and hygien regulations

The methodical approach and the safety procedures undertaken in each phase of the project reassured us that we had chosen the right supplier.”
Working closely with Schunk, a firm specializing in gripper technology, the company first carried out a study and a pilot test in the laboratory. Robomotion demonstrated that the required cycle times could be achieved with a mechanical gripper solution while simultaneously increasing the process reliability. It was also possible to comply with the required food and hygiene regulations.

Tried and tested technology

“As they were using tried and tested kinematics, the developers from robomotion and Schunk concentrated primarily on the process-oriented functional prototype, the drive and on optimizing the grippers,” says Jörg Herrmann, who headed the project at Schunk on behalf of branch management.
“Together we expanded on the original double gripper, adding a third gripper and a third lifting unit, and finally optimized the weight of the robot as a whole. This technology enabled us to come online in February 2006.” 
      After working three shifts for six months, the principle developed had proven its capability. Thanks to the excellent planning, it was possible to cut back on one robot, thereby achieving an improved price/performance ratio for the system. 

Automation a competitive edge

“With the new system, we’re running the packaging machine at full capacity, enabling us to record a performance increase of up to 25 percent compared with manual loading. The ability to cover peak loads is of particular interest here. 
For example, in the run-up to the Football World Cup, special production shifts were operating at the weekend. This alone gave us a competitive edge, enabling us to deliver Bifis to our customers on schedule,” says production manager Carim Gad. 
     IRB 340 FlexPickers operate at high speed on the Bifi packaging line. For the first time, the ABB production robots have been fitted with the triple gripper which is able to pick up three randomly positioned sausages one after the other from the conveyor belt in one process step, and place them individually in the rollstock machine. The positioning and location data required comes from an upstream image processing system which is in a position to capture the information relating to the individual sausages and pass it on to the master computer. 
    Jan Binder, technical director at robomotion, goes into detail about the further technical intricacies of the system. “The software we’ve developed enables an optimal supply of positioning data from the image processing to the robots, so the utilization ratio is planned optimally. Moreover, a system concept could be achieved which saves a lot of space and exhibits a high power density.” 

Technology applicable in other sectors

“This high-speed technology is not only of interest in the foodstuffs sector, as it can be used anywhere where small items have to be handled at high speeds, for example, in fast assembly and mounting processes,” says Andreas Wolf, director of robomotion with responsibility for sales and preliminary development. 
    The high speeds open up new prospects for cost-effectiveness as the parts do not have to be pre-arranged or placed in magazine feeders, but can in effect be randomly placed on the conveyor belt, like bulk goods, and gripped there at high speed.

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