FANUC robots have a way with waffles

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Sugar, vanilla, chocolate coated, soft or crispy; Belgian waffle house Biscuiterie Thijs knocks out thousands of batches of the batter snack every day. What started as a family business in 1976 has grown into a waffle empire supplying the likes of Aldi, Lidl, Carrefour, Jumbo and other European supermarkets. Catering to this growth, in 2013 the company’s waffle plant in the Flemish province of Herentals acquired six new FANUC delta robots to perform the task of packing. With retail orders on the rise, it was an intentional move towards automation by Biscuiterie Thijs, with the six FANUC M-2iA robots packing over 150 more waffles per minute than human hands.

FANUC robots have a way with wafflesThe four-axis M-2iA pick and place delta style robot is one of the few IP69K-certified robot systems on the market able to withstand high-pressure and temperature washdown procedures. For machine operatives at Biscuiterie Thijs, the line can be cleaned three times faster than before.

Hygiene was a big factor for Geert Smolders, assistant manager at the Belgian facility: “In addition to being more hygienic than humans, these pick and place robots make our line more profitable. Packaging such vast quantities is both labour intensive and requires a high level of coordination. With the new FANUC robotic line, we’ve gone from packing 300 waffles a minute to 450.”

As a parallel-link robot, the ceiling-mounted M-2iA robot is both compact and dexterous. With a wrist rotation of 3500 degrees per second, it can pick from a conveyor at very fast rates.

The robot’s fluid motion has proven to be especially beneficial for the signature Belgium waffles, which are rounded in shape with a delicate jagged edge. Leaving the refrigeration unit, the waffles previously had a tendency to stick to one another and when operators tried to intervene to pack them the fragile edges would break off, increasing waste. Thanks to the application of smart features like iRVision and visual line tracking, it’s a much smoother pick-and-place process.

Presented randomly on a two-track conveyor belt, the robot’s vision system visually detects the exact contours of each waffle. So, each robot receives an equal load and knows instinctively which waffle to go for and where to place it on the packing line. In addition to an overhead camera which feeds information to each robot via the controller, the conveyor belt is illuminated from underneath to further enhance visual product inspection.

Seamless direction

The most striking feature of the installation is how seamlessly each camera directs the robotic actions. Connected to the robot controllers, they not only transmit the volume and position of waffles located on the conveyor, but also divide the waffles among the six robots, highlights John Greymans, owner of the Dutch company that commissioned and installed the line. He says: “We created a customised software solution whereby the robots communicate fully with the packaging line. Opting for a duo pick – whereby each robot grips two waffles – saves valuable time and further enhances the transfer speed.”

The ability to regulate the speed of the pick and place application has also proved beneficial, especially since the robots positioned towards the end of the line have less than a metre to complete their packing task. Geert points out: “Thanks to the FANUC control unit software coupled with iRVision, we are able to adjust the pick and place speed to match the speed of the production line.”

Overall, the Belgium waffle team is very satisfied with the efficiency of their six FANUC M-2iA robots. Geert concludes: “Automating our packing line has significantly improved the quality of our waffles plus we’ve increased production by over 30 per cent!”

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