Machine control: Robots go like a child in a sweetshop

An innovative robotic packaging line has replaced manual picking and packing for Italian traditional handmade confectionery company Zaini to produce a vast range of chocolates, confectionery, sugar-free sweets, and seasonal items (such as Christmas confectionery, Valentine hearts and Easter eggs). The biggest challenge for ABB Robotics, PRB Packaging Systems, and Zaini was to...


Senago, Milan, Italy — When established in 1913, Zaini SPA produced handcrafted chocolates, cocoa and confectionery, but as the business grew, machinery was incorporated to help employees meet the growing demand. Today, the company produces a vast range of chocolates, confectionery, sugar-free sweets, and seasonal items (such as Christmas confectionery, Valentine hearts and Easter eggs) at its two plants in Italy.

FlexPicker IRB 340 robot has been working to organize and box a wide range of bagged confectionery and chocolates. Source: Zaini SPA

At the Senago plant, an ABB Robotics FlexPicker IRB 340 robot has been working to organize and box a wide range of bagged confectionery and chocolates. The installation is equipped with an advanced machine-vision system that has an almost human ability to “see” up to 130 different product variations and adjust its activity accordingly, with minimal supervision.
The FlexPicker came to Zaini at the recommendation of PRB Packaging Systems , specialists in end of line machinery and solutions. “Zaini’s engineers asked us to develop a system to handle a vast range of their products for packaging,” recalls Agostino Biagini, a partner at PRB. “The system had to be flexible, easy to operate, and easy to modify, since the products and boxes for shipping change very frequently. This made the assignment especially difficult.”
“We sell to supermarkets, and to retail outlets such as bars. Both are highly competitive markets,” explains Amerigo Pallanti, factory manager for Zaini.
In competitive markets, even a small cost or efficiency advantage can determine holding or winning share. An additional consideration for Zaini is the seasonal nature of the confectionery business, with huge volumes between September and December, less so for Valentine’s Day through Easter, then tapering off until the following September. Automation on the packing line means employees are free to handle more demanding assignments.

Vacuum end effector picks up diverse package types

Vacuum end effector picks up various package types. Source: Zaini SPA

The proposed solution had to be reliable, flexible, precise, adaptable, and easy to operate, with equipment sensitive to changes in product format. PRB came up with a combination of the FlexPicker and its own F-30 vertical case packaging machine. The system also had to be capable of dealing with products that, when they arrive at this phase of the production cycle, are not always aligned on the production line, but follow each other at a determined distance.
The biggest challenge for ABB Robotics, PRB and Zaini was to ensure that the robot could handle up to 40 formats and 130 different iterations: Zaini’s range of bags holds from 50 grams to one kilogram of chocolates or sweets, the bags’ contents have different sizes and shapes (for example small squares, round eggs, hard sweets), and there are different-sized packages for shipping and display, depending on the content and weight of the bags. In addition the formats change every day.
As the pre-bagged items roll down the production line, a vision camera “sees” the format and that data is used by the robot controller so the robot can pick and place items in the appropriate containers.
The system met the chocolate challenge. It can handle 50g packages at a rate of 90 per minute and 1kg packages at 35 per minute, working two shifts (16 hours) a day, five days a week. Before the FlexPicker, no pick and place robot had ever taken on this level of complexity in a food or confectionery line. The FlexPicker has the ability to perform faster, but, this is not needed for the application.
“We expected a lot from this machine, and we got everything we expected,” concluded Zaini’s Amerigo Pallanti.
Edited by C.G. Masi , senior editor
Control Engineering News Desk
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