The answer to the problem came in the form of a new robot packaging system from SIG Pack Systems which has enabled the company to deal with 100 boxes per minute.
Wagner introduced Piccolinis to the market in 1996, targeting the pizza snacks at families with small children and at single adults. The success has been phenomenal: in fact, just one single variety, Piccolinis with salami, can keep production running for up to four days at a time.
At peak times, 900 Piccolinis are produced every minute in each 24-hour operation, a packaging rate of 100 boxes a minute, which means that a total of 1,296,000 Piccolinis leave the factory every day.
Faced with the need to find technology to fit the product rather than changing the product to fit the available technology, Reinhard Ristau, technical director at Wagner, began to look for a system which would offer considerably higher speeds than the previous cartoning machine but which was compatible with the limited space available at the Piccolinis plant.
Hence the decision to use robots. "This is the first time we have used robots," explained Ristau. "After seeing them being used for packaging, I can now imagine there are many interesting possibilities for the use of robots in the manufacturing process too."
Wagner chose SIG Pack Systems for its move to robotics because it was able to offer a more compact solution with a lower level of complexity at a competitive price. Wagner's decision was also partly based on its use of SIG pillow pack machines, which had already proved an extremely successful investment.
The Piccolinis are now packed in threes on a SIG HBM pillow pack machine. The products are spread across three lanes and are then transferred to the cartoning process, the newest part of the system, which comprises three SIG Delta robots. Each robot is capable of placing more than 100 triple Piccolini packs a minute into the ready-made pizza boxes supplied from the carton former.
The packages are detected using a vision system with image processing. This enables each robot to accurately locate each package and precisely place it into the carton.
Each robot arm matches the speed of the conveyer belt in order to ensure an accurately centred pick-up of the products. The system was designed to give even distribution between packages and ensure an equal workload of all three robots. At the end of the system, the boxes are closed, sealed and cased.
The more efficient packaging system has already led to substantial gains for Wagner, which has been able to increase output substantially. Between January and May 2003, its turnover increased by 8.4 per cent as a result of the additional volumes being brought to market.
With the German pizza market extremely buoyant - frozen pizzas alone generated sales of €657.3 million in 2002, up 5.7 per cent on the previous year - meeting demand could well prove to be a headache for many other producers in the future, said SIG - all of which means that its innovative robots could be put to good use in plants across the country.