The development of robotic pizza pickers

Carter Holt Harvey Packaging
Thursday, 06 October, 2005

A good pizza maker is hard to find. You have to know how to prepare the dough, how long to let it rise, shape it without patting, choose the proper accoutrements (tomatoes, mozzarella, etc) and cook it, according to tradition, in a wood-burning oven.

While an expert pizzaiolo might prepare a pizza in a few minutes, an industrial pizza machine must turn out hundreds of pizze in the same time frame. No one would claim that frozen pizza tastes the same as that prepared fresh in a brick oven, but frozen pizza can bring an Italian aura and a good deal of nutrition to people who want the taste of Italy without an authentic pizzeria nearby.

If you are an industrial pizza producer, making the pizza is only the first part of your problem. You have to freeze it, sort it, wrap it, package it in accordance with regulations for freshness and hygiene, and make sure it doesn't lose its attractiveness during this process. For example, if the pizza starts out round, it better look round when it arrives in the customer's kitchen. If cheese has been sprinkled on top, it better be there when the customer opens the package ... and not wind up on the factory floor.

Enter Italy's Vortex Systems and Sweden's ABB. Vortex is located in a part of Italy (Fossalta, near Ferrara in Northern Italy) where the traditions of machine making are almost as deeply rooted as those of cooking; ABB's Process Solutions & Services (PS&S) is a branch of the Automation Technologies division of the ABB Group in Italy.

Vortex Systems was founded in 1987. At that time robotics in Italy were used for automotive production lines, not for food. But through a series of encounters, Vortex Systems was confronted with the problem of designing machinery for packaging ice-cream cones. "The opportunity came about by chance, but Vortex Systems devoted itself to the challenge," says Mr Garbellini.

So Vortex Systems' first projects were installations for the packaging of ice-cream cones for Algida (owned by Unilever), the biggest ice-cream maker in Italy. French, English and German customers soon followed. Machines for the picking and packing of sticks, cups and sandwich novelties were added. Business grew as a result of three interrelated factors:

  • the growth of supermarkets as a distribution channel,
  • the growth of ice-cream novelties,
  • the growth of ice-cream multi-packs.

Today Vortex Systems is part of the CT Group. Sister companies of Vortex inside the CT Group are Catta27: ice-cream process, Otem: flowpack machines and Mopa: feeding systems. Together with Vortex, this group represents a global player in providing integrated solutions to different packaging and process needs.

"Now we can compete with larger German and Swiss competitors and have a better presence internationally," claims Mr Garbellini.

The wisdom of that strategy can be seen in the numbers. In 1990, Vortex Systems had about 20 employees; today there are 75. Half of these are engineers and technical specialists; the other half are commercial, administrative and production staff. The company makes about 30 integrated lines or systems a year, most of them designed for the specific application of a particular client, with a turnover of over 15 million euro.

Vortex sales in 2004 will show a growth of about 20% compared with 2003.

In the year 2000, the company moved to its current headquarters in Fossalta, a bright and airy facility with wooden beams and vaunted ceilings suggesting a mountain chalet. It has 800 square metres of office space and 2200 square metres for production and warehousing.

Three years later, in 2003, the company began experimenting with the packaging of frozen products, and ABB became involved.

"We decided to enter this market because we may have some peculiar and new solutions for this industry," admits Mr Garbellini. "Even if it's a more complex market that demands great flexibility and high hygiene standards."

Vortex already made its own 'robots' but frozen products processing demands more manipulation of the product while on the production line. At the same time, these products come in a variety of shapes, and these shapes may change every few months, depending on consumer tastes. Vortex engineers decided that for this special application they needed, together with a vision system able to 'see' the products coming down the line, a more sophisticated and fast robotic system that could work on at least four axes and more flexibility in their solution.

ABB made its Flex-Picker available to Vortex. "They gave us a sample robot to work with, to learn about, to experiment on. We played around with it and developed an application with four axes robots having innovative features and advantages compared to other solutions on the market," recalls Mr Garbellini.

The first industrial system picks different shaped pizze up as they move along a production line coming from the freezer, positions them in continuous in the flowpack chain (Otem flowpack machine) and packages them. The challenge lies in the fact that the pizze are not collated neatly on the line and may not be perfectly uniform in shape. Also, they must be handled delicately: there may be cheese or other items on top of the pizza and these can't be lost in the trip from line to package.

Packaging has to be both fast and reliable; down time means a lot of product will go to waste. ABB's FlexPickers handle 100 pizze a minute with payback claimed in six months or less.

According to Mr Garbellini, the advantages of FlexPicker for this application are:

  • it is cost competitive;
  • it is more flexible than traditional pick and pack machines. The machines, with vision, can handle triangles, ovals, rectangles and more than 40 different formats and sizes;
  • quality control is built in;
  • it is more hygienic because the product is picked up and packaged immediately without an intermediate step for sorting. Every step eliminated is a step forward in hygiene.

ABB's FlexPicker has performed so well for pizza that Vortex is now using it in packaging machines for breaded meats. Meat is more difficult to package than pizza because there are more hygiene requirements and the breading is more delicate.

"This is the second product we are supplying to Vortex; a third is on the way," says ABB PS&S in Sweden.

Together with ABB, Vortex Systems is still focused to pursue the innovative and creative process which has been considered essential since its foundation for the growing and for the leading role of the company in the packaging field.

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