Automation within the food industry is commonplace and there are many examples of special purpose machines and robot systems performing a diverse range of processing, handling and packaging operations. However, using robots to write messages and greetings on to the surface of cakes has been an area where the natural variation in the product has, to date, made it all but impossible to achieve consistent results.
Quasar Automation, together with technology partners Scorpion Vision and Mitsubishi Electrics, has successfully developed a robotic system which adapts to the shape and surface profile of each individual cake to allow precise and consistent decoration.
There has always been a demand for decorative cakes for special occasions such as birthdays, anniversaries and other celebrations. The messages written in icing on these cakes have, for many years, been a somewhat skilled yet labour-intensive manual operation. The advent of robotics has allowed the process to be automated to a degree, but only where the surface being decorated is consistently flat and level.
Although robots can be programmed to follow the shape, for cakes with highly contoured surface profiles, the variation from cake to cake often means that the gap between the dispensing nozzle and the surface can vary. This affects the quality and consistency of the written message and, in the worst case scenario, the icing nozzle can come into contact with the cake, damaging or gouging the surface, meaning that the cake cannot be sold.
Quasar’s Bob Hinchcliffe has been on a long-term crusade, seeking to identify the mix of technologies and concepts which would solve the problems of dealing with highly contoured surfaces and product to product variability. The solution is based upon the use of 3D vision and lasers to scan the surface of the cake in less than 1.0s, with the resultant data being used to calculate the robot path for that individual item.
This means that the dispensing nozzle maintains the optimum distance from the surface, eliminating the potential for damage to the surface of the cake. The concept also allows the system to be used on unusual shaped cakes such as those that are designed as cars, footballs, trains or animals, etc., where there are often many different contours on the surface. As an example on a car-shaped cake, this system allows the robot to dispense icing features such as “racing stripes” on what would be the bonnet and roof areas of the cake, in addition to writing the message on the cake.
The robot and vision system are just part of the approach, as it is equally important to be able to control the dispensing system if a consistent ‘bead’ profile is to be achieved. This part of the system is another Quasar development and uses a precision motor – linked to the robot controller as an auxiliary axis – to provide proportional control during the dispensing process, with the icing finally delivered via a bespoke depositing nozzle system. The system has now moved beyond the feasibility and trials stage and QUASAR is currently in discussions with one a UK manufacturer of cakes, who are keen to introduce this technology to their production facility.
For further information about Quasar’s robotic systems, please go to www.quasarautomation.com.