Robots help pancake maker improve productivity, hygiene

Tags: manufacturing, alignment and balancing, business management

ABB’s robotic technology has helped transform the production of pancakes at the Honeytop Speciality Food Ltd. plant in the United Kingdom by the installation of two lines, each utilizing four FlexPicker IRB 360 robots for the picking and stacking of pancakes. The solution – designed, built and installed by ABB’s channel partner, RG Luma – ensures the company can meet its own stringent requirements for the hygienic handling of food, as well as introducing reduced labor costs, and improved health and safety levels at the 120,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in Dunstable, Bedfordshire.

Honeytop Speciality Foods Ltd., the U.K.’s leading privately owned Naan bread producer and Europe’s leading volume manufacturer of specialty flatbreads, produces more than 100,000 artisanal breads an hour. Recognizing the need to improve productivity, the food specialist approached RG Luma – suppliers of industrial automation, special-purpose machines and robotic integration – with the requirement for new automated production lines to help improve hygienic conditions at the plant and increase flexibility for the production of pancakes.

The demands of the industry
“When we first began talks with RG Luma regarding this production line, we had some reservations about the robots and whether they could help introduce the flexibility and reliability we needed,” said William Eid, director for Honeytop Speciality Foods Ltd. “We work in an industry with very tight turnaround times. We receive daily orders that are expected to be out to the depots within 12 hours of production. We needed to improve productivity, hygienic standards and increase the speed of the production line to meet these industry demands, all while reducing downtime.”

Picked and stacked by IRB 360 FlexPickers
By working closely with RG Luma, Honeytop Speciality Foods outlined the range of products required for production. The answer was to introduce flexibility, speed and quality with four FlexPicker robots, capable of handling 110 picks per minute to ensure all pancakes are picked and stacked quickly and precisely.

Forming part of a bigger solution for Honeytop Speciality Foods Ltd., the FlexPicker robots are connected, via conveyor belts, to a stand-alone, automated hot plate production line that produces large quantities of batter-based products, including light and fluffy American pancakes. The conveyor belt operates in a waterfall pattern, helping reduce the pancakes to room temperature following cooking, before preparing them for stacking and packing.

All pancakes are manually checked before entering the robot enclosure, where the pancakes are picked and stacked in piles (of selectable height dependant on product) onto one central outfeed conveyor.

Robotic load sharing system and buffer implementation
The enclosure is split into four areas of operation, enabling the robots to operate in alternative areas to the preceding robot on the line. The result is four ABB FlexPicker robots, evenly spaced out, each manning one section of the conveyor. This load-sharing system comes complete with a buffer system, designed by RG Luma, to enable the robots to keep pancakes on the buffer shelve until a short stack is identified. This buffer system also helps to reduce waste levels as the right stack of products is produced on the central outfeed conveyor.

ABB’s proven software technology
Complementing the FlexPickers is ABB’s proven PickMaster 3.2 software and its IRC5 controller. ABB’s PickMaster 3.2 software offers greatly simplified programming, enabling users to model for applications and optimize multiple robot installations. For Honeytop, the use of the PickMaster 3.2 helps monitor progress on the line, including the total number of picks and can be used to quickly change production from one product to another. RG Luma has also created a secondary control system to work alongside ABB PickMaster 3.2 to vary the outfeed conveyor speed to prevent short stacks or overflows.

A major breakthrough in vision software technology
Integrated with the PickMaster 3.2 software are four-gigabit Ethernet cameras. These are mounted in front of each robot and used to locate each pancake’s position on the conveyor. The robots then track the pancake position and accurately pick it and place it onto the central conveyor. RG Luma configured the vision software to recognize overlapping product and, for the first time ever, FlexPickers are able to pick a product overlapped on top of another one.

The final step of the production line requires the products to be checked again by manual operators before entering Honeytop’s automated packing and labelling machine, provided by Fuji Machinery Ltd.

Realization of the benefits and ROI
Speaking about the final solution, Eid stated, “This is our first investment in robotic automated technology, and despite some apprehension, we have not experienced one issue since the installation over six months ago. Turnaround time has been dramatically reduced between products and, as a result, we can meet our customer’s tight deadlines without delay. The robots have already enabled us to absorb a number of overheads, thanks to low labor costs and improved productivity.”

Experience and proven products are key
“The directors at Honeytop did express some apprehension about introducing robotics,” said Andrew Jones, sales director at RG Luma. “Having integrated over 25 ABB robots in the past 12 months, we were confident in continuing to use such proven products, and I think both William and his team could see how radical improvements would be possible with this change.”

Each of Honeytop’s final production lines feature four IRB360 robots, ABB’s PickMaster 3.2 software and four IRC5 controllers. The built-in versatility of the production line has dramatically cut the changeover time between products, making it easier for Honeytop to meet its deadlines with high-quality products every time.

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