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Robot improves on tradition in food processing

14 August 2016

Suzanne Gill finds out more about an automated robotic system that is able to mix, load and cook ingredients in a very untraditional way and which is said to help improve product quality, increase productivity, reduce waste and save energy…what’s not to like? 

Automation within the food sector cannot be said to have kept pace with that of other manufacturing industries – mainly due to a lack of enabling technologies to suit the specific requirements of food processing. This now looks to be changing, due to a reduction in cost of robotic equipment and increasing computing capabilities, which is resulting in automated robotic systems being priced to better fit the food processors budget. 

OAL, for example, has completely rethought the way that food is processed and with the introduction of its Automated Processing Robotic Ingredient Loading (APRIL) platform the company has also developed a solution that conforms to many of the requirements of Industry 4.0 projects – enabling food processors to respond more quickly to the fast changing food landscape and adapt recipes to meet changing consumer requirements and to create smaller batches of more customised product.

APRIL is an automated, modular food processing platform with unlimited processing configurations which can, for example heat, mix, homogenise, combine and fill. The system comprises a robot which runs along a track to service a variety of task-based stations. 

Ian Beauchamp, head of process engineering at OAL, explained where the idea for APRIL originated: “We were working on an application to make a spicy vegetable soup in a three-tonne cooking vessel. It was necessary to load 11,000 kilos of vegetable ingredients into vessels from a variety of tote bins, which took 35 minutes for every batch. Each tote had to be lifted onto a platform before being emptied into the kettle. We felt that there had to be a better solution and looked to the use of robots to help speed things up. The result was the creation of APRIL.”

Meeting demand
Scale can be a challenge for food manufacturers who can face considerable seasonal variance in demand. Soup manufacturers, for example, will face peak weeks which can see orders increase six-fold for short periods. With robotic-based systems such as APRIL an extra cook module can be simply added when capacity needs to be stepped up to meet demand.

Traditional kettle-based cooking processes rely on humans to add ingredients to the kettles. “Processing rooms can consist of upwards of eight kettles, each making a different recipe and this can result in many dozens of tote bins in the cooking area – which is already busy with people loading ingredients into kettles via a platform. This means that there is a very real risk of someone putting the wrong recipe into a kettle or adding ingredients in the wrong order,” said Beauchamp. APRIL moves away from this traditional structure and greatly reduces the number of operatives needed in the cooking area, therefore reducing the risk of errors. 

Because the system has no pipework, the time and cost of cleaning pipes, pumps and valves between batches, is also eliminated, as are the traditionally accepted pipe yield losses in chilled manufacture of between 5 and 12% per batch. Jake Norman, OAL, innovation and marketing manager, elaborates on this: “Analysis of existing chilled food plants has indicated potential bottom line improvements following adoption of our APRIL automated technology of between 7% and 14% depending on the cost of the ingredients. This would come as a result of a reduction in operator costs and a reduction in product losses.”

In addition to these cost savings the system also offers greater flexibility. APRIL can be cost-effectively and quickly reconfigured to accommodate evolving consumer tastes. Adding new devices to traditional kettle cooking systems can be a costly undertaking due to the engineering work required. Often vessels are one size fits all with limits on process flexibility and poor utilisation. 

Beauchamp explains further: “The beauty of the APRIL approach is that its movements are standardised. You are moving a bowl from one position to another. To change the structure is simply a matter of reordering the movements. With a traditional process if you want to introduce an emulsification stage, for example, you need to either fit a single emulsifier to a common point with pipework running to and from the individual vessels – which can lead to further product waste – or add an emulsifier to every vessel, which is costly. With APRIL an emulsifier is positioned as a central station and the individual vessels are moved to it by the robot. Such a solution can increase utilisation of the emulsifer from around 10 minutes in every hour, typical for traditional systems, to closer to 50 minutes in every hour.”

By removing the need for pipework, pumps and valves, APRIL systems produce more consistent and better quality product, faster than current processes with significantly reduced ingredient wastage and energy costs, while taking up to 80% less factory space. Pumping delicate products through pipework can degrade its quality. APRIL simply pours product for transfer to other vessels, helping maintain the integrity of delicate products such as fruit. 

Innovative heating 
The APRIL platform incorporates further innovative technologies – in the form of an OAL’s Steam Infusion heating and mixing process, researched under a £1million Innovate UK project. Steam Infusion is being used widely across the industry by the likes of Bakkavor and Greencore in traditional applications, but the APRIL platform will further maximise its fast and clean cooking performance. Beauchamp explains: “The EHEDG and 3A approved steam infusion Vaction unit is mounted onto a lance in the lid of an APRIL process vessel and when the robot closes the lid the unit is immersed into the vessel and the fluid floods the unit. Steam is brought into the device through a conditioning chamber. The velocity of this steam is accelerated in the conditioning chamber which then enters the fluid stream at above the speed of sound, breaking the fluid flow into droplets to give a much larger surface area of the product being heated.” This systems allows for a gentle temperature gradient and a greater surface area for the steam to condense into vapour and the product is not subjected to any hot contact surface areas. “White sauces such as bechamels and cheese sauce will cook onto the hot spots in traditional steam jacketed kettles,” continues Beauchamp.  “Between batches it is therefore necessary to undertake a clean-in-place process to remove burnt debris to ensure there is no contamination in the following batches. This is time consuming and leads to greater product wastage. This does not happen with Steam Infusion because it generates a partial vacuum within the unit eliminating hot spots which means the vessel can be simply rinsed at the end of a batch.” 

An APRIL system is currently housed at the University of Lincoln, where it is being used to educate industry and demonstrate how this disruptive automated food processing platform could offer benefits to anyone producing food on a batch basis.  OAL is already working with an early adopter of the technology in Holland and Food Processing hopes to be able to report on this project in a future issue. 

The APRIL system will be featured at a forthcoming conference at the National Centre for Food Manufacturing on 13th October 2016, which will focus on what food processing might look like in 2030. To find out more about the event click here 

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