Soft Dough Handling
The bakery automation industry has become a proving ground for the Soft Robotics gripper. One of those early adopters is ABI LTD, a global integrator of automated bakery equipment in Concord, Ontario, Canada.
“It was an ongoing struggle for us to find good, reliable solutions for soft dough products,” says Aaron Burke, Marketing and Communications Coordinator at ABI LTD. “When you’re dealing with soft dough products, particularly proofed dough products (dough that has been allowed to rise), they have to be handled very gently, otherwise you can end up leaving impressions in the dough, or you could deflate the dough or malform the product.”
Burke says they just shipped a robotic system for a large pizza company in U.K. and is working on a second system for them right now, both utilizing the Soft Robotics grippers. An ABB Robotics Preferred Partner, ABI LTD developed a four-robot system that picks raw pizza dough right from the rounder and places it into trays.
“In the old methods of picking and placing, we were using needle tools or suction cups, or some kind of metal tools. All of them had their downfalls.”
The Soft Robotics gripper is able to handle different sized dough balls with one tool. Coupled with a nimble robot and 3D vision that determines the position and size of the dough balls, you have a complete solution that doesn’t require tool changers.
“You have to have a tool that treats a 150-gram dough ball the same way it treats a 50-gram dough ball,” explains Burke. “It has to be able to open and close variably to grip the product without putting too much pressure on it.
“We were able to come up with a configuration that has five fingers,” he continues. “The fingers spread wide enough to get around the full size of the largest dough balls, but when the system recognizes that it’s a smaller dough ball, it squeezes a little tighter (based on the amount of air pressure flowing into the gripper). We were able to find a combination that can handle three or four different sizes of product with the same tool.”
Robotic Waterjet Cutting Takes the Cake
ABI LTD is bringing other innovations to the bakery automation space. Waterjet technology has been used in the food industry for years, but now robots are taking it to new levels of creativity and efficiency.
The Katana robotic waterjet cutting system marries a flexible robot with a pure waterjet system and 3D vision technology for high-volume cake and pastry cutting. Here’s how it works.
First, a 3D laser scanner determines the presence and position of the cake, then it maps out the product’s typography. Software crunches the data gathered by the vision system to determine the robot parameters for the pre-programmed cutting patterns. Then a robot equipped with a waterjet nozzle uses a very narrow stream of water at extremely high pressure to slice through the cake in the designated pattern. An easy-to-use touchscreen interface allows you to hand-draw or import new designs.
Watch the Katana robotic waterjet cake cutting system in action. In this case, the waterjet-wielding manipulator is an ABB IRB 140 six-axis robot.
No two cakes are exactly the same, so the integrated vision system is very important, especially when you’re nesting shapes within a cake. The system maps out how those shapes will fit together in a particular product to minimize waste during the cutting process.
Burke says the system can be used with fresh, semi-frozen, or deep frozen product.
“The waterjet pump at 60,000 psi of pressure coming from a tiny 0.05 millimeter orifice has a lot of cutting power,” he says. “But we find the best results to be in the semi-frozen state. That tends to be the sweet spot because you have a lot of structural integrity of the product at that temperature. Also products with inclusions, like fruits and nuts, are no problem.”
As seen in the video, traditional cutting methods often restricted cake slicing to straight-line cuts with blades that wear down. With the flexibility of a six-axis robot, you can cut circular patterns unachievable with a straight blade. Burke says they’ve cut everything from seahorses and hearts to maple leaves and Christmas trees out of cake.
“Historically, for that kind of stuff you had to go to some type of die-cutting system, where you’re stamping your shape into the cake. With dedicated tooling like that, you get into changeovers, you have potential cross-contamination. You have to make sure they are clean.”
In the food industry, robotic waterjet cutting uses only pure filtered water. This makes it both sanitary and environmentally friendly.
“Cakes and pastries are the primary use of these types of systems, but they can cut just about anything,” says Burke. “We’ve also integrated waterjet cutting for Rice Krispies squares and energy bars, which typically start off as long sheets and then get cut down into pieces.”
ABI LTD is using vision-guided robots for cake decorating and 3D ultrasonic scoring of bread loaves and pretzels. Robotic automation is also used for cupcake and muffin depanning, croissant bending and pinching, and sheet cake box loading. Check out these bakery robots on the job.