Robotic technology is now successfully entering every sphere of the food manufacturing process – from harvesting to delivery. Whatever the task, increasingly there is a robot being created that will undertake it successfully (albeit with human help and supervision).
Even the most delicate of tasks may be involved. In America, robots pack eggs, and even handle croissants. Here in the UK, Cambridge Consultants have developed a robot ‘hand’ that can move fruit such as strawberries from one place to another. Possessing soft, suction silicon grips, the hand distributes weight across several grippers thus allowing it to pick soft organs and bananas as well as hard apples without causing any damage. It can also sort fruit by colour dividing red apples from green apples.
Acko, a specialist company packing fruit such as blueberries, cherries, cranberries and cherry tomatoes, has installed what is claimed to be the most sophisticated cherry packing line in Europe. The automated system has been installed at its factory in Evesham, Worcestershire and enables cherries to be selected by various criteria. It utilizes cameras and white light spectrum to take 50 frames a second of each cherry passing across the picking line. This enables the machine to detect more defects especially in darker fruits. The result is that the system produces a higher yield at lower cost compared to manual quality control. It can also grade cherries from 15mm to 40mm in size and reject anything that is outside the customer’s required specification. Once graded and quality checked, the fruit is automatically weighed and packaged into the chosen punnet type and either flow wrapped or top sealed.
Within the food industry there are now machines that will optimize packing productivity, reduce waste, palletize, case load and bag produce using all kinds of fabric including paper, plastic, woven polyproplene, hessian and nets. One of the latest machines will bag pre-prepared salad leaves. Other machines can slice curds, pack sausages, grate and bag cheese, slice cheese, mix ingredients and cook them. There are also robots that can deal with food portioning, and forming to make produce such as meatballs and gourmet burgers.
Even the production of sticky food can be automated. The Aja range of BWS Sticky Food automatic combination weighing equipment has solved this problem. It’s small footprint and series of small conveyor belts provides total flexibility and portability as well as being easy to clean down at the end of each short run. Batch automation is very much a key trend within the food processing sector as it enables manufacturers to make precise amounts of a specific product, then quickly switching to making other items on the same production line rather than just running one product continuously. The flexibility enables companies to adapt to trends and sales demand quickly and easily.
Automating much of the food production process does help make the food chain safer and more secure. As long as the maintenance engineers maintain the machines properly and keep them clean, automating the food production process reduces the risk of contamination and increases hygiene. It also eliminates hazards encountered by humans working in wet environments with the constant risk of tripping or slipping.
In some circumstances, even the growing process of fresh produce is being automated. Growponics designs and builds automated greenhouses using modern hydroponic agronomics techniques and technology to maximize food production on a 24/7, 365 days a year basis.
Most recently of all, Lincoln University is experimenting with an Automated Processing Robotic Ingredient Loading Chef (or April for short) which focuses on recipe management and recipe control of liquid food products.
For engineers, managers and technicians the key is to make sure these robots run smoothly, every day of the year. Breakdowns can be costly, and immediately affect company profits thus making the engineers role absolutely crucial within the business. There can be little doubt that for the right people, this is certainly a challenging career option!
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