Homemade ice cream specialities made from fresh, regional ingredients – this is what distinguishes the Australian Pixie brand. The Pixie Ice Cream manufacturer from Toowoomba in Queensland, Australia, also impressed the Queensland Government with its regional concept in the Made in Queensland grants initiative 2018.
With the grant funding it acquired as a result of this success, Pixie switched to automated packaging. Now, a combination of a picker line and a packing line from Schubert packs the ice cream on a stick into a variety of cartons and plastic boxes. Through the joint development of the TLM system, the two innovative companies quickly established a close relationship.
Keith Reisinger in Toowoomba originally had the idea of the Pixie regional ice cream brand as far back as 60 years ago. His ice cream creations made from natural, fresh ingredients from the region were so well received that the family business is now in its third generation. Justin Reisinger, manager of Global Business Development at Pixie, drives the international marketing of the fruit and milk ice cream varieties.
The Queensland Government´s Made in Queensland grants initiative, which supports small-to-medium-sized manufacturers, was used by the company as a stepping stone to position itself for the international market. With the help of the government grant of $1.496 million Australian dollars (approx. 930,000 euros), Pixie invested in innovative automation and technology solutions that significantly increase production volumes. The objective is to expand the sales of Pixie ice cream to North America and the Asia-Pacific region.
Brendan French, business manager at Pixie Ice Cream, explains why he chose to bring Crailsheim-based packaging machine manufacturer Schubert on board for the project: “We first came into contact at the 2016 PackExpo in Chicago. The visit to the Crailsheim plant ultimately convinced us that with Schubert we had chosen the right partner to step into the world of automation. Their innovative strength, leading technologies and the modular, flexible concept of the TLM machines suit our ideas perfectly.”
The available space and packaging design as a challenge
The switch to automated packaging entailed a number of requirements for the new packaging machine. It was important for us to be able to package the previously frozen flow-wrapped ice cream online, i.e. sorted and directly from production, as well as offline, i.e. mixed assortments from storage. The entire system had to be extremely compact in order not to exceed the limited hall space. Additionally, the ice cream manufacturer required a large variety of formats: the milk and fruit ice-cream varieties in standard and mini formats are packed both into cartons of various sizes and into plastic WIP containers (Work in Progress).
Helmut Fuchs, the responsible project manager and sales account manager at Gerhard Schubert GmbH, reports: “In an early development phase, we identified another challenge: the cartons used are very high and allow very little leeway for the products. Moreover, the ice cream is not always in an identical position in the flowpacks.”
When a robot grips the product, the empty ends of the flowpacks protrude by varying distances. When placing them into the carton over the high edge, these “fins” can quickly stick to the carton wall.
“This delays the process flow and the products are not stacked well enough in the secondary packaging,” says Fuchs.
Development in close collaboration with Pixie
To prevent this, Schubert’s specialists worked closely with Pixie to optimise the packaging design to ensure a secure packaging process. Furthermore, the carton remains open at the front during packaging since it is not glued all the way round, as would usually be the case. The front carton wall tilts slightly forwards, enlarging the opening to insert the products.
Additionally, the individual flowpacks are positioned at an angle when they are inserted. Only once the carton has been filled is it closed with an attached lid and a three-sided closure. The new carton variants were selected to ensure that all formats are sufficiently pressure-resistant for storage and transport.
For customised solutions such as this one, Schubert draws on its decades of experience as an innovative, market-leading manufacturer of packaging machines.
“This works best when we can work closely with the customer – even over such long distances. Pixie is extremely cooperative and we developed an exceptionally close customer relationship with the family-run company in a very short time,” says Fuchs.
A combined system with modular Schubert technology
The new TLM system consists of seven modules and combines the picker line and packing line in a compact 13.8 m long system. This is made possible by the use of the counterflow principle and the Schubert Transmodul transport robot. With the Transmodul, cartons and plastic boxes are moved variably from one station to the next within the system. All secondary packaging is fed into the system via the magazine, including the stackable WIP containers.
“This eliminated the need for a space-consuming feed with a belt from the outside and the transfer to the system,” explains Fuchs.
When the machine is operating online, the ice cream on the stick is automatically fed from production and the flow-wrapping machine via a product belt into the machine. Offline, the products are fed manually by loading them onto ten tangential belts. At the end of each pair of belts, there is a pick and place robot placed, i.e. a total of five robots. With their individual tools, the robots carefully pick up the flow wrapped ice creams and place them into the cartons.
During the automatic changeover from online to offline, the pick and place robots are moved to their respective positions. All infeed belts are equipped with incident light scanners – Schubert’s image recognition systems – that identify the position of the products on the belt. The format changeover of the system is also automated to the greatest possible extent by flexible tools.
Long-time partner Selpak in Australia
Although Pixie Ice Cream is based in Australia, the distance was not an issue when it came to installing the packaging line.
Fuchs explains: “Within seven weeks, the Pixie system was shipped to Queensland. Our modular system concept is perfectly suited for such a journey, as we only need a few days to assemble the line.”
Regional customer support is also ensured: “With Selpak, we have a long-standing local partner who knows our technologies very well. The employees there support us every time we commission a Schubert system in Australia. Also, all our Australian customers rely on Selpak’s experts to service their existing equipment.”
Shane Sipthorp, CEO and owner, highlights: “We have enjoyed a close partnership with Schubert for 30 years. The Schubert employees from Crailsheim are always on site with us and are welcome experts. Some even switch directly to Selpak for several years.”
Options for the future
With the new packaging line, Pixie Ice Cream can now significantly increase its production capacity and not only better serve the Australian market, but position itself internationally as well. The close relationship with Schubert will also make it possible to smoothly implement further automation in production together in the future.
Facts and figures
- A compact combination of picker line and packing line
- 7 sub-machines
- 1 infeed belt in online mode and 10 infeed belts in offline mode
- Optimised packaging design
- 13 secondary packaging formats
- Magazine for cartons and WIP containers
- Up to 400 products per minute in online operation
- Format changeover in about 25 minutes
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