Dalmine LS for Brazzale: respecting tradition by innovating

An automatic warehouse where robotic arms 'dance' moving cheese wheels and induction shuttles move 'mini cheese ripening racks' automatically. Welcome to the new Brazzale plant, where ageing is a scientific process.

What does respecting tradition mean? Slavishly reproducing centuries-old operations, or reinterpreting them, taking advantage of what technological progress offers us to obtain a result that is not only the same, but even better? Roberto Brazzale, number one at Brazzale in Zanè (VI) does not even need to think to answer this question. 'Tradition has nothing to do with maintaining habits, obsolete methods or inefficient standards,' says he. "Twenty years ago, we left the world of DOP cheeses (protected denomination of origin) to enter the world of freedom and go back to doing business: the imposed constraints were in fact too tight and prevented us from taking advantage of the many opportunities offered by the market. 
The leap to automation
Among the results of this newly found freedom is the market launch of the Gran Moravia grana cheese, in 2003, which today reaches a production volume of 350,000 wheels, with more than 200,000 currently ripening. 'The Grana world absorbs more than 50 per cent of Italian milk,' explains Roberto Brazzale. A wheel, before being marketed, must age for an average period of 12 to 16 months, with an enormous capital outlay. Traditionally, the ripening phase is managed inside very large warehouses set up with simple deep shelves, divided by aisles to allow manual handling of the product. The lack of space convinced us to focus on automation and, in 2018, once we had identified the place to build the plant and the suppliers to involve - Dalmine LS, Dero Group, the designer Claudio Fedi - we decided to set off.
A new approach to the ripening process
The result is the automated warehouse, inaugurated last summer, located in Sant'Agata in Cogollo del Cengio (VI), an ideal position for maturing cheese due to its altitude and climate.  "Despite the fact that we are just at the beginning,' Brazzale emphasises, 'the new plant has already provided us with significant improvements: the first concerns the possibility of stabilising temperature and hygrometric conditions. Thanks to the 140 km of piping dedicated to aeration, there are positive effects on the quality of the maturing process and the final product, with a lower physiological loss of product. The possibility of data control offered by automation has also made us rediscover the real value of ripening, which is not just a number, but is a phenomenon as complex as that of processing, if not more so, because the changes that occur to the cheese in terms of sugars, fats and proteins during ageing are incredible. In addition, the automatic handling of the the cheeses enables a constant visual control of the product, i.e. the immediate detection of possible anomalies. In other words, automation has opened the door to a modern and innovative approach to maturing, as a starting point from which to continue improving the process".
Space optimisation
The plant implemented in Cogollo del Cengio appears to be a highly automated system, consisting of a multi-depth storage area within which specially designed ULCs are stored: the racks, i.e. the miniature reproduction of traditional cheese aging trees. With a capacity of 32 wheels resting on spruce planks, the mini-racks are made of Sendzimir galvanised structural steel, which ensures their durability even in potentially aggressive environments. The mini-racks are then handled by shuttles and satellites, elevators and AGV induction shuttles, in a constant dialogue with two robotic islands (for a total of 4 robotic arms) in charge of handling and loading/unloading, turning and brushing operations of wheels and boards.  
The management of the stored cheese wheels follows a batch logic that has allowed the adoption of multi-depth and therefore the optimisation of storage spaces: the warehouse has only two aisles 115 metres long, three loading levels and channels (of 26 and 8 locations) in which the wheels are positioned according to LIFO and LIFO logic. When fully operational, the plant will work in three shifts.
The managed process: the entry of the cheese wheels
But how do the activities take place? The process starts in the morning with the arrival of the trucks (2 per day, with a capacity of 540 wheels, for a total input of 1080 units per day) with the new lots to be stored. The cheeses travel on pallets (12 wheels per pallet on entry, 25 on exit), which are unloaded by the operators and placed at the entry station: 'from here on, the process is completely automated,' emphasises designer Claudio Fedi. A robot picks up each cheese wheel, singularises it and places it on a conveyor belt that will lead them to the identification station where a machine vision system reads the casein label containing the OCR code for the unique identification of each cheese wheel. At this point the cheese is ready to be placed inside the 32-place rack, which, in the meantime, the warehouse and AGVs have brought empty to the entrance station. "The wheel positioning  is carried out by a robot and the location is registered in the system, guaranteeing the complete traceability of the product within the plant," specifies Fedi.  
Stocking and processing
Once the 32 locations have been filled and the wheel control operations, which are essential for automated product handling, have been completed, the racks are picked up by the AGVs and sent to the storage area, where the internal shuttles will proceed to position the racks associated with the same batch along the storage channel until they are full. The next step is the extraction of the rack for brushing and turning of both cheese and board. The process is supervised by an IT structure: the MES regulates the processing isles in a constant dialogue with the warehouse managed by the WMS. "The operations," explains Fedi, "are consistent with the work schedule set for each batch, which takes into account the arrival date of the cheese wheels, the type of ripening and therefore the processing cycles. Based on the programme, each rack is extracted from the warehouse and taken by the head shuttles to a second robotic isle where the wheels and boards are brushed and turned by special robots at a rate that is currently 1,200 - 1,300 wheels/hour but can reach up to 1,500 processed units/hour.
The cheese wheel test
At the end of the operations, the 'mini-cheese rack' returns to the warehouse, perhaps in a different location from the previous one. This is because the system aims to create a balance between the freshest product and the most mature product, allowing an ideal temperature and humidity level to be maintained for maturing. At the end of the maturing process, which generally lasts at least ten months, the cheese has to pass the experts' examination, i.e. the control of its structural quality. When the time has come, all the racks from the same batch are taken to the entrance station and from there to the X-ray inspection where their quality will be assessed, based on a history of data collected over time. On the basis of the results obtained, the cheese is assigned to a category (first, second or third choice) and the plant manager will decide whether to proceed with the dispatch of the cheese for sale separately according to the different qualities or to return it to the warehouse, on racks containing cheeses of the same quality. In the first case, the product is palletised, film-wrapped, labelled and then loaded by the operator onto the truck intended for the sales channels. 
The more than 200,000 wheels stored in the plant are handled by two people per shift. All information, including quality, related to each product batch is recorded in the system, thus allowing complete traceability of each cheese wheel: at any time it is possible to retrace what happened during the maturing process. 
Credits: Il Giornale della Logistica 

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