Automation has already made significant forays into the food production industry, but officials and researchers in the United Kingdom are looking to take it a step further and automate the operations behind the managing, weighing and moving of raw food ingredients.
Funded by a £450,000 grant from the government’s Innovate UK, the endeavour is a joint venture between Olympus Automation Ltd. and the University of Lincoln. The public-private partnership will also focus on establishing essential hygiene and food safety measures, which will be necessary when further implementing robotic systems within the food production sector.
While further automation will likely make some jobs in the sector obsolete, Harry Norman, a managing director at OAL, said the project will allow food producers to develop new ways of improving productivity and avoid raising prices in the face of ever-increasing costs.
“Throughout the project, we’ll be taking a step-by-step approach, working our way through common operations found across the food manufacturing sector such as weighing, sieving, and moving ingredients around,” Norman said in a statement. “One criticism of automated systems in the past has been the lack of flexibility, but we will aim to develop flexible… robotic systems that can handle some of these tasks and take the pressure off food manufacturers.”
The venture will perform a deep study of food production operations at the moment and then create new automated raw material management systems to merge with OAL’s established technologies currently being used in the industry. By automating the raw ingredient side of food production, the scientists are aiming make significant advances in performance, quality and potential production volumes.
Mark Swainson, a lead for Research and Higher Education at the National Centre for Food Manufacturing at the University of Lincoln, said the new venture addresses a number of the technical challenges facing the automation of material handling in the food production industry.
“In doing so, it will greatly enhance the potential for companies of all sizes to embrace the improvements in productivity, sustainability and quality which these technologies make possible,” Swainson said.
The project will look to leverage OAL’s APRIL technology solution for food manufacturers. The latest addition to the APRIL line is an automated dry weighing system, which will be debuted at a major conference from 4th to 10th May in Dusseldorf, Germany.
Stephen White, OAL’s lead engineer on the new public-private project, said APRIL is a great example of how robotics can simplify the way in which we cook food.
“We’re able to emulate how you would cook at home with small batches with up to half the amount of capital of equipment required in a traditional system,” he said.
Researchers at the University of Lincoln are also expected to make major contributions to the project. Through Innovate UK, the university has already partnered with OAL on a steam-based high-speed cooking process and cryogenic food storage methods.
“We are proud to be working with an innovative and bold British company in OAL, combining their industry insight and engineering expertise with academic knowledge and R&D facilities at the University’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing and Lincoln School of Engineering,” said Swainson. “Together we can pursue innovations that offer tangible benefits for manufacturers, retailers and consumers in an industrial sector where the UK is exceptionally well-placed to emerge as a world leader."
The investigations are slated to be held in the dedicated Robotics & Automation Zone of the National Centre for Food Manufacturing, smack dab in the middle of the country's food and drink production industry.