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Where no one has gone before

An innovative robotic application automates commercial cake decorating


February 23, 2015
By Vanessa Chris

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Feb. 23, 2015 – The commercial baking industry is no stranger to automation. For years, it has used machines to mass produce baked goods. Until now, however, the decorating of these items was reserved for manual labour — actual people waiting, with frosting bags in hand, to complete that final “Happy Birthday” on a cake, or an intricate swirl on a cupcake.

The reason for this somewhat archaic mode of decorating was simple — and something of which many industries suffer. Automation technology — more specifically, robotics — just didn’t have the capability to meet the demands required of such a delicate and varying application.

For a robot to be effective in this capacity, for example, it would have to be able to adapt to a wide range of applications — from writing on cakes to putting swirled icing on cupcakes. It would have to be able to carry a small, light nozzle weighing less than a kilogram for a line of cake writing, and then switch to a heavier decorating head weighing almost 15 kilograms to ice a 12-pack of cupcakes.

Delta robots, a popular off-the-shelf brand for the food industry, while easy-to-clean and fast, can only carry a payload of up to five kilograms. In addition, because they’re typically used for pick-and-place, they have a work envelope that’s just too large for this type of application.

Despite these obstacles, Unifiller, a company that provides automation equipment to the baking industry, had a dream of automating the time-consuming task of cake decorating — something that, if accomplished, would not only distinguish the company from its competitors, but also revolutionize the commercial baked goods industry.

From dream to reality
Unifiller contacted Rob Antonides from Apex Motion Control, a Surrey, B.C.-based design and service consulting company specializing in factory automa- tion. Recognizing the desired application wouldn’t be easy to design, Martin Riis, product manager at Unifiller, decided to start small — asking Antonides to design a robot that would allow the company to simply make swirl decorations on cupcakes.

“The challenge I had was locating a standard off-the-shelf robot that was sanitary, had a high payload and a small footprint,” Antonides says. He realized rather quickly that this would have to be a custom project. So he set to work, using the sanitary Delta robot as the base of his new “Decobot.” He replaced the Delta robot’s long arms for shorter ones, thus increasing the maximum payload to 25 kilograms while reducing the work area from a two-metre diameter to 400 millimetres. The shorter arms shrunk the overall footprint of the robot, allowing it to be mounted onto the conveyor — rather than beside it — including all the required guarding.

Straying from the traditional XYZ Cartesian system in favour of the Delta, Antonides was also able to offer a robot that was not only easy to disassemble and clean, but whose bearings or motors could be replaced in a matter of minutes rather than hours.

The majority of these new components fell under the Allen-Bradley line, making them much more accessible and easier to replace than proprietary Delta parts. He also chose the Wittenstein TPM, an integrated servomotor with a gearbox that features low inertia, to allow the robot to move more dynamically while simultaneously tightening its footprint.

Exceeding expectations
As the Decobot began to take shape, it became obvious that it would be able to do much more than simply add swirls onto cupcakes. So, with Riis’ help, Antonides started to take the application further.

“We merged our know-how of the baking industry with Rob’s knowledge of robotics, and ended up with some- thing that’s very useful to the industry,” Riis says. “The biggest challenge was designing a robot that understood how the different materials flow and behave. We spent a lot of time working on that.”

For example, when batter bakes, the surface isn’t flat but rather dome-shaped — and different types of batter, along with different types of baked goods, rise to different height profiles. If a robot was going to perform intricate designs on these surfaces, it would have to somehow take these variables into consideration.

Antonides addressed this by outfitting the robot with full X, Y and Z travel, so different cake heights can be handled automatically within an operator parameter. In critical applications, the robot can be connected to 3D vision systems that can scan the height of each cake and send the information to the robot, which in turn automatically compensates.

“The robot uses a laser-generated line and industrial cameras to measure and compensate for the varying heights in cakes, and also for the overall domed profile,” he says.

Not just for baked goods
Before the Decobot, baked goods would have to travel along a conveyor and stop at a specific station to be decorated. Thanks to the application’s 3D vision guidance, there is no longer a need to stop the line — the robot can decorate the cupcakes as they move, shaving significant time off the production process.

Antonides believes this thought process can easily be adapted to meet the needs of other industries. Any scenario where you have parts moving along a conveyor that need to be indexed or stopped at a specific station would be ideal for this type of application.

“One example might be a part that needs fasteners. You could attach an automatic screw feeder and screw insertion tool on the robot head. The robot would insert the screws and follow the part as it travels along the conveyor,” Antonides says. “Another example might be if a laser marker was required to mark different areas of a part. The parts could be marked without being stopped.”

Antonides says the robot could also be tweaked to meet the needs of any industry — including putting the robot on wheels so it could move freely up and down a continuously moving conveyor. It could also be used to aid in quality control, by identifying damaged parts.

The simplicity of the Decobot’s user interface is also something that can be of value to other industries.

“Most of the people using equipment in a bakery aren’t familiar with robots — they don’t have a programming background or anything,” Antonides says. “We needed this to be very intuitive. Almost 50 per cent of the work was getting the interface right.”

He wanted the process to be as simple as using an iPad, so he created a tablet where the user can draw a design or write a message for a cake using a stylus pen.

“When we were first designing the machine, we’d draw the cake designs in AutoCad and the robot would use that as its template,” Antonides says. “The problem was, it looked too perfect. With the tablet, the designs on the cakes look handmade, even though they’re mass produced.”

Riis says the user interface Antonides created well exceeded Unifiller’s expectations.

“When employees don’t have an automation background, they can get nervous when you introduce automation into their facility. They’re scared of it,” he says. “But Rob made it so simple to maintain and interact with. You can take anyone off the street and train them on this in two to three hours.”

Looking ahead
Although Unifiller has seen a lot of interest in its new Decobot, with large crowds gathering at a recent tradeshow to watch it in action, George Takei sharing its video on Facebook and even TLC’s Cake Boss inquiring about it, the company only just sold its first machine to a Canadian bakery in September. That’s not a surprise, though.

“We’ve seen a huge amount of interest in the technology. People are always interested in new technology,” Riis says.

“In our line of work, however, it can take from six months to two years to turn that interest into a sale.”

The company that recently purchased a Decobot will likely be making twice as many cakes once it’s installed, Riis says. With that ROI, he expects robotics will start to take over the commercial baking industry before too long, and Unifiller, with the help of Apex Motion Control, plans to be ready when that peak in demand occurs.

“Robotics is definitely in our future. To achieve these types of results without robotics, the footprint would be three to four times larger. This solution is ideal for factories that are looking to maximize space,” he says. “For now, we’re focusing on finding new applications for this robot and potentially extending it beyond a standalone work cell. We’d like to design a smaller table-top model for retail bakeries as well.”

Vanessa Chris is a freelance writer based in Guelph, Ont.

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2014 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.