Robotics: the future of food processing?

By Ahmed ElAmin

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Conveyor belt Industrial robot Robotics

COLOGNE, Germany: The future of food processing can be seen in a
working sausage processing and packing line set up by robot
manufacturers at Anuga FoodTech.

Meat goes into a hopper at one end and comes out the other palleted and wrapped for transport, all with minimal human intervention. About 20 robot manufacturers have pooled together to demonstrate the technology as a complete system for the first time at the processing and packaging technologz exhibition. Robotics could begin to take a more prominent place in the arsenal of options available to food manufacturers when they consider how to automate more of their processes. Robotics holds out the promise of reducing costs by helping to speed up lines, making production more efficient and reducing labour requirements. Anuga FoodTec is a biannual exhibition of such processing and packaging technology, the counterpart of its sister show on food ingredients held on alternate years. Here, this week, the people who buy and use plant machinery and technology will be looking closely for the products and processes to help keep their companies ahead of their competitors. The sausage line is the first integrated display of robotics in action at Anuga said Rolf Peters, spokesperson for K-Robotix. The Bremen-based consultancy is coordinating the consortium of manufacturers attempting to push the technology into the food industry. "In coming years we hope that displays such as this will take over an ever larger space here as we become more important in the food industry," Peters told yesterday. Robotics have long been used in other sectors of industry, most prominently the automobile sector. High initial investment costs and hygiene requirements made food manufacturers reluctant to introduce the technology into their plants. Peters said robotics manufacturers have addressed the strict hygiene requirements needed by food processors, a sector he sees as the next great unconquered frontier for his industry. In fact the robot manufacturers are pushing the technology as a means of eliminating the need for human contact with food products. Workers are a major source of contamination in food factories. A demonstration of how the sausage processing line works began with the press of a button to set the whole operation in motion. The Robotick-Pack-Line is a modular production and packaging line that combines various separating, dosing, packing, sealing and labelling systems with industrial robots. The line handles the whole sequence of operations, all the way through to palletizing and banding of the finished product. The modular design allows processors to adapt the line to any food processing plant. The concept has already proved its success in the delicatessen segment of the industry, Peters said. The line at Anuga was staffed with two workers, who basically fed the line with sausage meat, casings and packaging materials. At an aseptic section of the line, meat is fed into a hopper and is funnelled down one part of the line to be put into casings. The sausages then tumble on to another conveyor belt at up to 200 a minute. So far the operation is like many other automated production lines. The completed sausages remain in a closed aseptic system and pass, scattered haphazardly, under a special scanning light on the conveyor belt. The laser light feeds information into a computer about where each sausage is located. The information is sent immediately to two crab-like robots, each with three arms. Knowing the location on the conveyor belt, the robots are able to pick up the individual sausages as they pass through the aseptic area and place them five at a time in individual meat packs. The packs pass through a film sealing machine, where air is removed and replaced with an inert gas such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The gas used is dependent on the product. The removal of oxygen gives the sausages a longer shelf life at stores. Covered with a plastic film, the packages move to another machine that labels and weighs them to ensure they come within the correct range requirement. The packages move down the line where another robot picks them up four at a time and places them into a carton. Once the eight-pack carton is full, a larger robot arm, something like the ones used in car factories, picks it up and places it on a wooden pallet. After 50 cartons are on the pallet, another robot takes over and places it in a machine called the "Octupus", which bands film completely around it and places it at the end of the line, ready to roll into trucks and off to the grocery store. The companies involved in the Robotik-Pack-Line include imt robot, beb Edelstahlbau, Omor Electronics, Piab Vakuum, Sealpac, Kawasaki Robotics, emt automation, SSI Schäfer Noell, Signode Szstem, EDV Service Logemann, Multiscience, Wächter Packautomatik, Toshiba Machine Robotics, Weiss Klimatechnik, Optikett, bosch Rexroth, Vemag and Maschinenbau.

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