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Robotic solution helps create cheese sticks

30 January 2023

The Dutch family brand Vepo Cheese relies on a fully automated production line: two KR AGILUS hygiene robots from KUKA process cheese into sticks and feed them to a packaging machine. This has raised the standard of hygiene – and doubled production capacity.

Among cheese lovers, the Netherlands is considered the Grande Nation. A look at the export figures also shows that the Netherlands is at the top of the world: With 3.8 billion euros, they are in second place behind Germany (4.5 billion euros), according to the OEC World statistics. Cheese and the Netherlands belong together – that's what Mrs Antje has stood for, for over 50 years. And the family business Vepo Cheese in Bodegraven, in the middle of Holland, impressively proves that “typically Dutch” also includes innovation and growth. 

“When we talk about cheese, it's all about what we love and what drives us,” says Mark Verkleij, CEO at Vepo Cheese. “Generation after generation we work on improving the cutting, grating, portioning and packaging of (semi-)hard cheese. That's how we came up with the idea of an automated production line for our cheese sticks.” 

10,000 cheese sticks per hour
Vepo Cheese, with a family tradition of over 100 years, focuses on the European market. Like other companies, the Dutch company had to face the increased productivity and hygiene requirements in food processing. “Only as many people as necessary should touch the cheese directly,” recalls Hugo van Put, Technical Operations Manager 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. 

“The machine has never been built before” 
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,” says Hugo van Put. And Robin de Groot, Managing Director Groba, adds: “The machine has never been built in this form before.” 

And this is how it works: All the operator has to do is select one of two pre-configured programs, depending on the type of cheese. 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 thus influences the height of the sticks and the portion weight. An exciting feature is that a checkweigher ensures that the deviation of the weight per stick is kept to a minimum. This is because it gives the slicing machine a signal to cut thicker or thinner slices if necessary.

Minimal cutting loss with maximum precision
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 a difficult part for us,” recounts Robin de Groot. “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.”

Stick for stick with hygienic robot to success
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,” says Hugo van Put. “Nobody touches the cheese, only the robot. This has not only increased hygiene and significantly minimized cutting loss, but also doubled our capacity.” 

A clean thing for direct food contact
The hygiene requirements in food processing are high, so a special robot was needed for the production line at Vepo Cheese. The KR AGILUS in the “Hygienic Machine” version meets these requirements. Corrosion-resistant surfaces, food-grade lubricants and the use of stainless steel parts guarantee the highest level of hygiene. The electrical interface, which is critical for cleaning, is not located in the primary contact area, but underneath the robot. “The compact KR AGILUS HM was our first choice,” says Robin de Groot of system integrator Groba. “This is because it is designed for the highest operating speeds. This enabled us to achieve Vepo Cheese's goal of doubling the number of sticks to 10,000 per hour.”

A strong team with strong software
And there is something else that helped Groba with the integration: the simulation software KUKA.Sim. It can be used to simulate details of robot applications even before commissioning and then transfer them 100 percent to the real controller. “We used KUKA.Sim to run the movements of the KR AGILUS and thus identify potential problems,” says Robin de Groot, “for example with regard to the high speed of the system.” Another advantage: via virtual reality goggles, the customer himself can also see his plant even before it is up and running. “We are absolutely satisfied with the solution for our cheese sticks,” sums up Hugo van Put. “Together with Groba and KUKA, we have built a line that delivers more output, more safety and quality compared to manual production.”

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