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A small, smart flexible pick system can do several things at once. It can satisfy a chocoholic’s cravings, act as an “innovation kit” for manufacturers, and simultaneously demonstrate the Industrie 4.0 concept. Naturally, the system was developed in the land of chocolate: Switzerland.
Who’s never experienced this? Your hand is circling an inviting bowl of colorful mini chocolate bars, but you don’t see your favorite kind. The same disappointment arises when you buy a bag of assorted chocolates. Your favorite ones vanish in the twinkling of an eye, and the same varieties always remain in the package, untouched.
A new flexible pick system solves this dilemma. Customers can now order the chocolates they like the most, any time and from anywhere, on Twitter. “I can order three mini bars of dark chocolate and several with nuts, then fill the rest of the package with milk chocolate. And I can leave out white chocolate altogether,” says Markus Krack, Head of Technology Transfer FITT at the School of Engineering of the University for Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW).
The order is received by the system’s production program with no human intervention needed. A six-axis robot creates the assortment and places it in a plastic container, which was sponsored for the project by the packaging specialist Pacovis in Lenzburg. The container is labeled, provided with the necessary product declaration, sealed, and shipped.
With the smart flexible pick system, Krack implemented his idea at the FHNW in advance of the Industry 2025 conference to illustrate the principle of Industrie 4.0 as it applies to personalized production. Industry 2025 is a national Swiss initiative for strengthening Switzerland as a production center by implementing Industrie 4.0. “The system is intended to provide an experience,” Krack explains. “We therefore chose a product and a problem that everyone knows: chocolate!”
The FHNW has an automation partner for the project: Autexis Holding AG, headquartered in Villmergen in the Swiss Canton of Aargau. They’ve maintained a partnership with Chocolat Frey AG for many years. The chocolate manufacturer also sees potential in personalized mass production. Fabian Sigg, Assistant Head of Production at Chocolat Frey, explains: “These processes are currently very expensive, because we’re oriented to mass production, and individual orders are packaged by hand.” However, Chocolat Frey doesn’t have specific plans yet to engage in personalized production. “We’d have to reorganize our entire production, a process that must be reviewed very carefully.”
Controlled with an app
The flexible pick system was financed with the FHNW’s own funds. “Producing the system was quite a feat,” Krack remarks, laughing. “Everyone pulled together. Even our professors did some of the programming, which doesn’t happen very often.” The partners relied primarily on products and solutions from Siemens. “We used MindSphere, the open cloud ecosystem from Siemens, on which our proprietary Autexis apps can run,” says Philippe Ramseier, the owner of Autexis (more information about applications for MindSphere here).
The MindConnect hardware component collects the data from sensors and actuators and transmits it to the MindSphere cloud. A Simatic S7-1500 controller controls the Kuka robot using the TIA Portal library. This significantly simplifies the robot engineering, since the engineer only has to be familiar with the TIA Portal. Siemens provides an extensive sample application for this purpose, which contains the robot program and the HMI images. The robot path points can thus be taught from a Simatic mobile panel (KTP900F), which gives a common look and feel to the way the machine and robot operate.
Autexis has been working with products from Siemens almost exclusively for 35 years. “This strategy has proven to be successful,” says Ramseier. Thanks to this long-lasting partnership, and by sharing ideas openly with Siemens on a basis of mutual trust, Autexis can apply itself to the development of new products and services. This is also a good choice for Krack and the FHNW. “Siemens is cutting-edge in the industrial environment. Our students must be able to deal with that.”
Making more information visible
The Autexis project team also implemented new services for the Hannover Messe. Inventories or operating data from the robot can be made visible directly on the flexible pick system. “A personalized label gives customers with augmented reality additional information on the product, like the origin of the chocolate and the calories in each item in the assortment,” Ramseier says.
“The system can be expanded almost infinitely,” he adds. “For example, we can integrate the warehouse. If the inventory of mini bars falls below a minimum level, an order is automatically triggered.” After the trade show in Hannover, Siemens and Autexis will also demonstrate the new innovations and services based on the smart flexible pick system at the Swiss Industry 4.0 Conference.
The customer’s preferences and ordering habits can be analyzed using the data collected by the flexible pick system. Who likes what chocolate? Who orders chocolate and when? Does customer behavior depend on the weather? “A customer who orders an especially large amount of chocolate could be sent a fitness studio brochure,” Krack says with a chuckle. And then adds, “Data protection is important to us.”
Innovation kit for Chocolat Frey
The flexible pick system is an “innovation kit” for Chocolat Frey, so it can be used to test processes. The results obtained can flow into the operational process later on. Krack also has a lot of praise for the project. “Of course, the research is also aimed at expanding the flexible pick system and developing more processes. As a university, it’s our job to identify new possibilities and point out where the journey could take us.”
Chocolat Frey has been pursuing its passion of producing chocolate creations since 1887. The company joined the Migros Group in 1950 and has been the largest chocolate manufacturer in Switzerland for the last 35 years.
In 1966, Chocolat Frey moved its production from Aarau to Buchs in the Swiss Canton of Aargau. In approximately 70,000 m2 of space, 1,000 employees produce chocolate, semi-finished products like coatings and cocoa powder, and chewing gum for the Swiss and global markets.
Autexis implements international solutions in the areas of automation, process controllers, and control systems.
Along with MES solutions, Autexis also offers services for the Internet of Things and creates digital twins using agile methods, which are implemented on the market in efficient use cases. The company also develops MindApps, which are provided in the MindSphere ecosystem. 24/7 service and support 365 days a year complete the portfolio.
The School of Engineering of the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland (FHNW) offers Bachelors and Master’s degrees in engineering, computer science, and optometry. The School of Engineering at FHNW also engages in applied research and development. Approximately 250 new research and development projects with leading companies in Switzerland and abroad are launched each year. More than 300 employees in 15 institutes create knowledge and solutions and make them accessible for practical application.
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