SPECIAL EDITION: ROBOTICS
Advancing technology and lower costs could fuel meat sector uptake of robotics
Advancing technologies at lower cost and the development of flexible modular robotic systems mean that more and more manual processes can now be profitably automated.
Robotics bring considerable hygienic aspects into meat processing, said DIL’s Dr Knut Franke. Aspects such as a reduction in risk from contamination from employees and the ability to realise significant temperature reductions in the processing plant are immediate benefits, he said.
Another advantage is that robots also bring about a greater consistency in operations.
“Robots do not get tired, do not get distracted and do not need breaks,” said Dr Franke. “They are highly developed universal tools designed for 24/7 operation”
He added they also contribute to more humane working conditions as they provide relief from monotonous operations and promote higher on-the-job safety.
The hygienic advantages of using robotics are especially pronounced in the handling of unpackaged meat which is very susceptible to microbial spoilage. This is an emerging area as robots have typically been used for the automated handing of packaged products rather than in direct contact with fresh products.
Traditional barriers to the uptake of robotics in the meat industry have been the variety of products to be processed, quality control issues, integration into lines and hygienic requirements.
Such issues are now being addressed. New developments in a range of grippers – including mechanical, vacuum and air flow systems – as well as in sensor techniques are contributing to a boost in robot automation in the meat sector, added Dr Franke.
Citing an example of innovation in the technology, DIL announced it has developed a new vacuum gripper which tackles one of the traditional disadvantages of using the equipment in meat processing – namely suction of product residuals and liquids.
The body said its new vacuum gripper has been designed to deal with soft and non-rigid products. The system combines the ability to grip any product shape with 100 per cent cleanability, it said.
“The required under-pressure is generated with compressed air directly inside the gripper thus eliminating the need for a large vacuum system with all its disadvantages,” said a statement from the organisation.
As importantly, the gripper can be “actively” cleaned by immersion into a bath, with the internal under-pressure used to flush the component quickly and efficiently. The kit can also be “passively” or manually cleaned very simply as it can be disassembled without tools in a short time.
“It was designed for easy cleaning of all channels and openings of the vacuum system,” said DIL. “Added to that product residues will not clog the gripper and impair its functioning.”
Dr Franke said the meat processing sector has not been immune to the rise in labour costs. This and the reduction in the price of technology - robotics, sensors and computers – will all lower the “threshold for profitability” of robotics in the industry.