The Ilchester Cheese Company Ltd, which was founded in 1962 in Ilchester in Somerset, was a pioneer in that it was the first British cheese company to blend cheeses with other ingredients. The company’s first product was beer cheese and now the range has expanded to encompass more than 50 different blended cheeses, which are marketed to over 20 different countries.

The company opened a new product development (NPD) centre in March 2006. This now means that the product range can expand even further and take into account the tastes of the international market. Two successes from the NPD are Wyke Farms vintage cheddar cheese with sweet tomato and chilli chutney and crumbly Wensleydale cheese with sweetened dried blackcurrant and apple pieces.

The company supplies the UK retail supermarkets and food service market with pre-packed and block cheese. The majority of the cheese is sourced from Barbers Farmhouse in Ditcheat, Somerset, 12 miles away from Ilchester, where cheese has been made since the 1800s.

NEW PACKAGING CONCEPT

Ilchester has been responsible for some of the best-known blended cheese products in the UK market. These include Five Counties cheese containing Double Gloucester, Cheddar, Derby, Red Leicester and Cheshire cheese; Mexicana flavoured cheese; Abbeydale; Crandale; White Stilton and apricots; and Applewood smoked cheese.

“The packaging line has seen a vast increase in labour costs and the need for speed and accuracy.”

The company has always pushed innovation and this has been rewarded by a greater than 30% market share of the £72.5m blended cheese market in the UK.

The company has also released the vacuum-packed 150g mini cheese and also individual cheese 20g portions (Chuckles) in different flavours for lunch boxes. These are individually packed and sold in transparent tubes or nets to maximise the visual appeal.

However, with innovation such as this, the packaging line has seen a vast increase in labour costs and the need for speed and accuracy. When this became a problem for Ilchester the company turned to RTS Flexible Systems for a solution.

ROBOTIC TECHNOLOGY

In April 2008 RTS Flexible Systems introduced a new PixCell robotic picking unit into the Ilchester cheese portioning line to aid in the reduction of production overheads and increase speed and efficiency. The PixCell unit was installed on a line portioning blended cheese of approx 20g at 150 portions per minute and then placing them into the consumer packs for sale.

The robotic picking line saves on labour costs as the line used to require two operators per shift. In addition, it was difficult for operators to judge the thickness of a 20g portion at the speed of production and there was significant giveaway. The PixCell can detect over-thickness cheese portions and then remove them to be recycled.

“The PixCell can detect over-thickness cheese portions and then remove them to be recycled.”

The PixCell robotic picking unit uses a sensor to measure the height of each portion. The data is passed to the PixCell controller, which can estimate the weight and combine this with data about the product position. Following this the portions that are within the height and weight range are picked and passed to a vacuum-forming machine for sealing into their packaging. The unpicked cheese which is out of specification (OoS) is collected at the end of the line and recycled.

The same PixCell system can also be adapted for the packaging of a wide range of fresh products with variable unit weights and may be used for the processing of bulk or individual portions. The robotic technology for this application was originally developed for a chocolate biscuit manufacturer. The robotic picker is helped by RTS VIP line-balancing software and RTS-developed gripper designs.