Handled With Care

2008-01-11 - The latest innovation at Roland Murten AG is pretzels packed individually by robot – ABB’s FlexPicker IRB 340. It’s fast and the number of broken items has been reduced from between 10 and 12 percent to about 4 percent.

What is small, brown, freckled like Pippi Longstocking, and very crispy? A Roland pretzel from Murten, of course. For years they have been popular with kids on long journeys, and the favored method of eating them used to be to dig around in the box for the whole ones and leave the broken ones until last.

Nowadays Roland Pretzels are sold in specially moulded plastic containers and six ABB robots have been making sure they are placed in these transparent containers with great care.

The FlexPicker, thanks to specially developed mechanics, lifts individual pretzels by their two loops and stacks them in the container until it is full. All this takes place at high speed – 134 kilograms of pretzels have to be packed every hour.

Pretzels in 50 minutes
The plant never shuts down. Pretzels are made 24 hours a day in three shifts, and there’s a familiar tempting smell as soon as you enter the factory. The production process takes just 50 minutes, from the mixing of the ingredients – flour, malt and yeast – to the moment the pretzels are packed.

In the first stage of the process, the raw ingredients are piped across the factory, weighed, mixed and kneaded into dough. The dough is then fed in two kilogram lumps into one of the 12 machines that give the pretzels their traditional shape: The machine divides the dough into little balls, each about the size of a walnut, and then pulls and stretches them into long thin strings. With a final flourish the machine twists the string into the right shape and lays it on the conveyor belt.

Still twisting
It sounds complex, but is in fact surprisingly simple. Although the pretzels used to be made by hand by women piece-workers, they’ve been made by this same machine for the past 40 years. It is, sadly, not an ABB machine.

“It comes from the United States, and even today it’s a minor mechanical miracle,” says a proud production manager at Roland Murten AG. “It can twist 40 pretzels a minute.” Although repaired on several occasions, it refuses to give up the ghost.

That would be a disaster for the firm, because Roland Murten prides itself on being the only producer in Europe still twisting pretzels. All their competitors stamp them out of the dough.

Baked for ten minutes
The pretzels, which have now been evenly distributed onto the conveyor belt are dipped in a bath of sodium hydroxide and sprinkled either with coarse grains of salt or sesame seeds. Then it’s time for the oven, where they are baked for ten minutes at 350 degrees C.

This is where the six ABB robots, set up diagonally opposite each other, go to work. Each has a camera focused on the conveyor belt, which transmits the coordinates of each individual pretzel to a computer.

The computer programs the arm to lift each pretzel by its loops and lay it in a container. There are two challenges for this technology - first, the extraordinary precision of the picking, and, second, the calculation of the shortest distance.

The calculation is made by the PickMaster software program. The arm does not, as you might imagine, take the pretzels off the conveyor belt in the order in which they arrive, but instead, always takes the one nearest to it.

It always needs to know how many pretzels have already been placed in each container. Once the container is full, it is tipped and wrapped in plastic foil.

Quiet and precise
The company is delighted with this technology and the complex know-how behind it. The old packing system used air to suck the pretzels to the packaging, which was an extremely noisy business.

“The workers really appreciate how quiet these ABB robots are” says a representative of Roland Murten. There’s a further major advantage of the FlexPicker IRB 340: thanks to the precision of the technology, many fewer pretzels are broken than previously, which is important for the productivity and profitability of the whole enterprise (see “Fewer broken pretzels”).

Because there are fewer breakages, fewer people are needed to check the packaged pretzels and replace the broken ones by hand.

“Before we had to take two people off the other machines to do the quality control. Now everybody can carry on working at their normal station.”

ABB robots for Flûtes too
This was also the case for the ABB Robot that was delivered and installed for packing one of Roland Murten’s other specialties – a puff pastry product, known as a Swiss Flûte or Murten-Stengeli.

This too was a small technical miracle. The robot can pick 100 of these extremely delicate puff pastry confections in one go and lay them on the conveyor belt.

The Flûtes fall into containers and are then weighed. If they are too light, individual Flûtes follow automatically. It’s a machine that Roland Murten is extremely happy with.

Thanks to ABB you will hardly find any broken Flûtes or pretzels any more – provided you handle them with care, of course. You’d have to drop a box of them on the floor in order for the kids to be able to pick out the whole ones, and leave the broken ones for last.

Roland Murten AG

Roland Murten AG was founded in 1938 and is now part of the Valora Group, to which the company formerly known as Merkur, as well as Kiosk AG, also belong. It’s an enterprise with a long tradition, which employs more than 170 people in Murten, and produces around 20 tons of baked goods daily.

54 percent of production is exported to other European countries. In the beginning the company produced mainly crispbread and rusks, but today the range of products has been expanded to include items such as pretzels, bread sticks and the famous Flûtes.

Fewer broken pretzels

Why Roland Murten AG decided to invest in ABB robots.

In what way can the ABB robots do a better job than the machines you used to have?
For one thing, the ABB robots operate considerably more quietly than the old machines, which is important for the people who work in the factory. Another thing is that we’ve been able to reduce the number of broken items from between 10 and 12 percent to about 4 percent. These robots can pick the pretzels up much more gently.

Are these the reasons you went for ABB robots?
Yes. It was also because we’d already been using an ABB robot on our Flûte production line, with which we’d been very pleased. Working with ABB has produced real dividends, because we were able to find solutions together. The experts over at ABB understood exactly what we needed, and made sure that we got it.

Are you pleased with the new set-up?
Yes, the robots are living up to expectations, even though the machines and the know-how are absolutely new. We’ve been completely won over by this method of picking the pretzels up, rather than sucking them with air. This is the only plant in Europe that can do that. But there are a few teething problems that still need ironing out.

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