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Hygienic robots automate cheese processing

To raise hygiene standards – and double production capacity – the Dutch family brand Vepo Cheese automates food processing. Two KR AGILUS HM food-grade robots process cheese sticks and feed them to a packaging machine, all without waste or inefficiency.

100 years of cheese tradition at Dutch company

Cheese and the Netherlands belong together, as the figure of Frau Antje has symbolized for more than 50 years, and cheese lovers call the Netherlands the “Grande Nation.” Export figures from OEC World Statistics show that with exports valued at 3.8 billion euros, the country ranks second only behind Germany (4.5 billion euros). In Bodegraven, South Holland, family-owned Vepo Cheese impressively demonstrates that this “typically Dutch” industry also includes innovation and growth.

Cheese robots cut and pack Gouda blocks at high speed in a hygienic environment

Six-axis cheese robots boast a distinctive hygiene concept, certified for direct food contact

The idea: a cutting machine for the food processing

“When we talk about cheese, it’s all about what we love and what drives us,” said Mark Verkleij, CEO of Vepo Cheese, explaining his approach to the food industry. “Generation after generation, we work on improving how we cut, grate, portion and package hard and semi-hard cheese. That’s how we came up with the idea of an automated production line for our cheese sticks.”

Hugo van Put (left), Technical Operations Manager at Vepo Cheese, and Robin de Groot, Managing Director at Groba, know the processes of the food industry.

10,000 cheese sticks per hour: Robots double the speed of cheese processing and cheese packaging

Vepo Cheese focuses on the European market. Like many other food producers, the Dutch company has had to meet the challenges of increased hygiene requirements. “Only as many people as necessary should touch the cheese directly,” recalled Hugo van Put, Technical Operations Manager at Vepo Cheese. “At the same time, we wanted to double cheese-stick production capacity from 5,000 to 10,000 pieces per hour."
Vepo Cheese wanted strong automation partners for this purpose – and they found them in system integrator Groba and KUKA Robotics. The solution: today, the LAMBDA 405 cutting machine – and two KR AGILUS HM (“Hygienic Machine”) robots. 

Automation boosts hygiene in food handling.
Cheese robots from KUKA support automated food processing – for example, cutting and packaging.

Special requirements for machine and operation

And this is how the system works: the operator merely selects one of two preconfigured programs, depending on the type of cheese. A conveyor belt transports the cheese into the machine. The distance between the cutting blade and the gripper measures the width of the cheese to calculate the number of slices. The LAMBDA 405 then cuts the slices with a defined thickness, which, in turn, influences stick height and portion weight, while a checkweigher signals the cutting machine to cut thicker or thinner slices for minimal weight deviation.

Flexible and reliable: a Vepo Chees employee operates the industrial food-cutting machine. 

Automatic detection of the food position

The slices fall onto a conveyor belt, which also serves as a buffer when the cheese changes. A camera scans cheese slice position, relaying data to the first KR AGILUS HM robot, enabling precise gripping and placement on the cutting plate. Initially, transferring data from the camera to the robot presented a challenge. “That was the difficult part for us, but KUKA’s interface support solved it,” Robin de Groot noted. “The chesse robot must grip the slice precisely and place it centrally under the blade so the sides are the same length when cutting and no crumbs are produced.” The camera also detects slices that do not meet specified minimum dimensions. These are discharged into a Eurobin and later made into grated cheese.

Each individual device knows its task in the automated system.

Nobody touches the cheese, only the robot. This has not only increased hygiene and significantly minimized cutting loss, but also doubled our capacity.

Hugo van Put, Technical Operations Manager at Vepo Cheese

Innovative and intelligent food processing

The second KR AGILUS HM picks up finished cheese sticks with a vacuum spreading unit and places them in the cassettes of the packaging machine. “Where previously many steps were carried out manually, the new line now operates completely automatically,” said Hugo van Put in describing the system. “Nobody touches the cheese, only the robot. This has not only increased hygiene and significantly minimized cutting loss, but also doubled our capacity.”

The cheese robot grips the food under the most stringent hygienic standards.

Utmost hygiene in contact with the food

Food processing presents high hygienic requirements, so the Vepo Cheese production line required a special robot. The “Hygienic Machine” version of the KR AGILUS meets these requirements, and also helps companies comply with national and international food hygiene regulations. Corrosion-resistant surfaces, food-compatible lubricants and stainless steel parts ensure the highest level of hygiene. The cleaning-sensitive electrical interface is located underneath the robot, not in the primary contact area.

Food hygiene plays a particularly important role in production and packaging.

The compact KR AGILUS HM was our first choice because it is designed for the highest operating speeds. This enabled us to reach Vepo Cheese’s goal and double the number of sticks to 10,000 per hour.

Robin de Grot, Managing Director at Groba

Powerful software for food production and the packaging industry

One additional element – the simulation software KUKA.Sim – helped Groba with integration for Vepo Cheese. Before commissioning, the software's detailed, realistic simulations of robot applications transfer 100% to the real controller. “For example, we used KUKA.Sim to run the motions of the KR AGILUS and identify potential problems with the high speed of the system,” said Robin de Groot. Another advantage: with virtual reality goggles, customers also can see their system for themselves even before it is up and running.

Using KUKA.Sim, Vepo Cheese and Groba were able to test the functions even before installation.

We are absolutely satisfied with the solution for our cheese sticks. Together with Groba and KUKA, we have built a line that delivers greater output than manual production, along with higher safety and product quality.

Hugo van Put, Technical Operations Manager at Vepo Cheese

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