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Robot wields an ultrasonic cutter to tackle marshmallows

06 February 2017

Personalised confectionery manufacturer, Boomf, has increased product quality and throughput with the help of a robotic cutting solution. 

An ABB robot has been installed by system integrator Newtech at a company that specialises in the production of personalised marshmallow confectionery. 

Started in 2013 by founders James Middleton and Andy Bell, Boomf provides a service that allows customers to print their choice of photos, graphics and messages onto marshmallows, which they can then have sent to a chosen recipient as an alternative to flowers or greeting cards.

The idea has proved so popular that within a year the company’s manual production line began to struggle to keep up with orders. Much of the delay was happening at the marshmallow cutting stage becoming a particular bottleneck. Difficulties in achieving a consistent high-quality cut also meant that a lot of product was being wasted.

James Middleton looked at solving this problem with an automated solution, and looked at various cutting machines for the food industry. He came across a robot cutting application which used an ABB six-axis robot and an ultrasonic blade to cut cakes. The automated system was integrated by systems integrator, Newtech, which specialises in automation for the food industry and was the first company in the world to create a commercial robotic cutting solution combining a robot arm with an ultrasonic blade.

Because the original Newtech designed machines were set up to cut cakes or cheese, they weren’t suitable to cut marshmallow which is an inherently sticky product. However, by adding a mechanically PTFE-coated blade to an ABB IRB 1200 robot, Newtech was able to come up with a solution. The blade passes through an oil reservoir before the cut is made in order to ensure a suitable surface for cutting. Once the marshmallow is portioned, the blade passes through a cleaning tank before repeating the process.

A clean-cut design is of the utmost importance to Boomf. Middleton said: “We make sure we have a precise square, not just something that’s almost a square, and we have very sharp angles and edges so that we have a good printing substrate.”
When the process was performed manually, Boomf employed ten people to cut the trays of marshmallow into 40mm by 40mm squares. After every five or six cuts, the blade would need to be cleaned. In total this took five minutes. Due to miscuts, there was also a lot of wasted product. Now that the process has been automated, the procedure takes just 17 seconds. Newtech also integrated intelligent vision software into the robot cell to ensure a perfect cut every time. “There’ s next to no wastage now and that’s been a real benefit to the figures,” said Middleton.

Jaz Gill, sales manager at Newtech explained how the robotic solution uses vision technology in this and many other processes to accurately cut and track products as they come into the robot cell. “The vision  technology scans images and then uses 2D vision from the top of the cell to recognise the product. The data is then sent into the robot to follow it –  be it a tart, cheesecake or a sandwich, the camera ignores any other elements to achieve a perfect and accurate cut.”

In addition to improved product quality, the robot solution has also raised Boomf’s productivity levels significantly and the company now has the flexibility to respond to seasonal changes in demand. Ease of use of the robot is ensured through the use of a HMI which enables staff to operate the cell following simple training. 

“We are now look at where we can add value across the whole of the production line for Boomf as the company still has a challenge in manually putting the product into boxes,” sadi Gill. Over the coming months, Newtech will be trialling various other automated solution, using ABB robots.

Gill believes that robotics and automation in general is under utilised within food and beverage sector. “It’s a whole culture change that we need to bring to our customers and their partners, for people to understand that the use of robotics, the use of automation, the intelligence, is not only far more economic than it’ ever been and yields a faster payback, it’s incredibly easy to use,” he concluded.

When asked about what he would say to UK manufacturers who were thinking of investing in robotic automation, entrepreneur James Middleton was encouraging. “I’d say go for it,” he said. “The success that we’ve had with our robot speaks for itself. Any investment in robotics is a great decision for anyone that wants to ensure their future in an increasingly digital market,” concluded Middleton.

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