Food production within the UK has always been extremely innovative. The UK was the first country in the world to launch the concept of frozen food, instant coffee and ready meals. It remains at the forefront of food production development, responsive to trends and always seeking to stretch the boundaries of what is possible. The sheer number of food incubators and crowdfunding options for entrepreneurs that have emerged within the past few years bears witness to the potential scope for long term development.
Most recently, Acko – a specialist fruit packer dealing with blueberries, cherries, cranberries and cherry tomatoes – has installed what is believed to the most sophisticated packing line in Europe. Its cherry grader selects cherries according to specific criteria. Cameras using a white light spectrum take 50 frames a second of each individual cherry whilst it is on the packing line. This enables an increased number of defects to be identified. In addition, the automated system is configured to grade cherries from 15mm to 40mm in size. At every point in the installation and operating process, a food production engineer played a critical role in ensuring that maximum efficiency was achieved at all times.
Food production has changed dramatically over the years. It is now highly automated and the use of robots has increased within every aspect of the food industry from packaging to manufacture of prepared meals, cleaning and washing fresh produce.
Food production engineers work at the cutting edge of technology. It is a world which is constantly changing, stretching skills and ideas. Recent research at the University of Salford has resulted in the development of flexible multi-function grippers which hygienically handle unpacked food products, as well as specialized grippers such as lasagna gripper and grippers for handling delicate sliced food like cucumbers.
Over at the University of Lincoln, an Automated Processing Robotic Ingredient Loading has been launched which effectively creates a Robotic Chef. As Mark Swainson, Head of Research at Lincoln University points out “Most robotics and automation that is happening is end of line: palletisation, product casing, product packing. This is recipe management and recipe control of liquid food products. With this process we are looking to emulate the chef in the kitchen but in a large-scale batch robotic environment, which brings with it labour and product benefits.”
The level of automation within a business varies considerably and is constantly being updated, and changed to allow for new types of food products to be devised. Shorter production runs, the need for flexibility in terms of the products being created on each production line can substantially affect budgets. Keeping costs as low as possible is essential for business survival. Rising energy prices, strict regulations on food production and consumer demand for price conscious, healthy food puts pressure on the manufacturing process. At the same time, engineers have to find solutions to make production lines more energy efficient, minimize CO2 emissions and constantly monitor the production process to ensure consistent quality.
For engineers, each day provides new challenges via hands on engineering tasks, strategic thinking and management. If anything, these challenges are set to become even more intense in future. It is not just ensuring business competitiveness, but ensuring that consumers have the food they desire..
The role of the engineer is crucial at every point in a company’s business. It is the engineer who is responsible for maintaining and operating the technology, for providing insights into ways of optimizing packaging, supply and production. A food production engineer is uniquely placed to gain an overview of all aspects of a business, and to be involved in creating solutions on a factory wide basis.
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