Robotics project to address raw material handling in food industry

A joint university-food industry project has set out to tackle the costly and labour-intensive area of raw material handling, weighing and preparation through automation and robotics.


A joint university-food industry project has set out to tackle the area of raw material handling through automation and robotics – image courtesy of OAL.
A joint university-food industry project has set out to tackle the area of raw material handling through automation and robotics – image courtesy of OAL.

UK university researchers and two major food industry firms have teamed up on a project aimed at revolutionising food preparation by automating the handling of raw materials.

Olympus Automation (OAL) a supplier of engineering solutions to the food industry, is leading the new industrial R&D project in collaboration with researchers from the University of Lincoln, UK, and English Provender Company, a producer of condiments, dressings and marinades.

The collaboration is part-funded by a UK government grant of almost £900,000 from Innovate UK through its Materials & Manufacturing research fund funding stream.

It aims to address the unique complexity of food manufacturing ingredient variability.

Each day, food manufacturers can deal with more than 200 different raw materials with different states (solid, liquid, frozen, ambient and chilled), packaging format (bag, sack, box and drum), allergens and handling difficulties.

It’s this complexity that has  reportedly led to high manning levels, waste and inefficiencies in the industry.

Using OAL’s APRIL Robotics Material Handling modules as its toolset at the University of Lincoln’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing Centre, the research team is exploring how to integrate robotics and automation at each step of the production process.

The research will examine how processes such as product handling and weighing, can be streamlined and made more efficient through new robotic technologies.

Andy Riches, group operations projects director at the Billington Group, said: “The ability to accurately and efficiently prepare, weigh and batch the complex combination of ingredients within our product portfolio really is the engine room of our production environments.

“The processes involved have a direct effect on food safety, product quality and factory efficiency. We believe that the use of increased automation and technology to provide enhanced control, accuracy and repeatability will have a massive positive effect on all three of these critical factors within this core business function.”

One of the APRIL Robotics technologies that will be used in the project is a micro-ingredient weighing station that uses a collaborative robot to weigh out free flowing and non-free flowing powdered ingredients to an accuracy of 1g.

This technology was developed under a separate Innovate UK project between OAL and the University of Lincoln.

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