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US chocolatier develops virtual factory world

By Helen Glaberson , 07-Feb-2011
Last updated on 07-Feb-2011 at 14:21 GMT

The iPhone application developed by Tcho and FXPal that controls the factory's machines
The iPhone application developed by Tcho and FXPal that controls the factory's machines

US confectioner Tcho is developing a virtual factory world which will allow customers and employees to interact online with the company’s chocolate processing facility.

Real-time sensor data and video is imported from hundreds of sensors on the 30,000-square-foot factory in San Fransisco to create the computer-based environment.

“Different users can see different aspects of the data; for instance, we are designing ways for customers to track their own product from point of origin to finished product,” Larry Del Santo, marketing manager for Tcho told ConfectioneryNews.com.

“In the future, visitors will be able to choose avatars and interact with each other as well as the factory itself,” said Del Santo.

He said the technology will allow the company to create multi-user collaborative spaces for tasks like factory observation, virtual inspections, customer visits, employee training, process monitoring, and inventory tracking.

The software is being developed by FXPal, Fuji Xerox’s research lab in Palo Alto, California. Here researchers explore how new technologies like mobile augmented reality, virtual worlds, and social media can be applied in manufacturing.

The virtual factory is an exploration into an area called "serious games", which combines high-end game engines with robust media and data importation for “real-world purposes”.

iPhone controls factory

As part of its strategy to be an innovative and 21st century company, Tcho has previously worked with FXPal to develop an iPhone application to control its factory machines.

The application is controlled by Tcho’s research and development team to allow them to adjust the grinding process and the temperature gages on factory machinery such as roasters, melangers, grinders, and heaters.

“The application essentially works just like any other control panel, except for the fact that it is integrated with technology that is available on the iPhone,” said Del Santo.

He said that because the processing cycles often take many hours, it is helpful to be able to start or stop machines remotely.

“To our knowledge, no other chocolate manufacturer is using this kind of technology to monitor and control their factory or development labs,” he added.

“This most definitely is the future for manufacturers. It is easy, quick and on the go. For Tcho as a small business, it is vital us because everyone wears many hats in the company, and the application allows our chocolatiers to multitask and be able to join in more planning meetings,” he said.

The application also runs via a database that allows “accurate tracking” over months of the various combinations of cacao bean selection and treatment.

“For a process as complex as making great chocolate, this kind of clarity and accuracy is vital,” said Del Santo.

The iPhone application also has access to the many camera views across the Tcho facility and office building, which allows factory workers to see what is happening in the lab live with a pan-tilt-zoom camera as well as importing sensor data.

“The ease of use and the fact that we can multitask, as well as check and monitor what is going on in our actual store and facility is amazing,” said Del Santo.

There is no monetary transaction for the service that FXPal provides, since it is a research group and friendly partnership. Tcho is being used as a case study for FXPal to research how small food manufacturers can best utilize the technological application.

Tcho, which stands for “technology” and “chocolate” was co-founded in 2005 by Timothy Childs, a NASA space shuttle contractor, and Karl Bittong, who has worked in the industry for 40 years.

The company, which produces several thousand tonnes of chocolate a year, claims to be the only “bean to bar” chocolate manufacturer in San Francisco.

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