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Taking a disruptive route to long-term growth and profitability

01 May 2017

Would you consider using robots in your production process? The National Centre for Food Manufacturing thinks you should… It has a working demonstration of an automated robotic system that is able to mix, load and cook ingredients in a very untraditional way. Food Processing reports. 

Food manufacturers face rising costs, driven by the national living wage and many now recognise that change is needed to deliver long-term growth and profitability. As a result, businesses considering the development of a new food factory would be well advised to look more closely at the benefits that robots playing a more central role in the manufacturing process could offer.

It can be daunting for any manufacturer to make big changes to a traditional production process and the first step towards reassurance about the validity of this choice is always education. The National Centre for Food Manufacturing has a working demonstration of OAL’s robotic chef, APRIL (Automated Processing Robotic Ingredient Loading), to enable manufacturers to find out how robotic solutions might fit into their processes. APRIL is based around a simple idea of giving cooking vessels the ability to move from one processing/ ingredient station to another.

OAL believes that placing robots at the centre of the process offers unique benefits that cannot be obtained using a traditional kettle gantry arrangement. APRIL offers the opportunity to automate both the handling of raw materials and processing together and is an idea that is exciting many in the food industry. Simon Lushey, specialist food technical Manager at Marks & Spencer likes the idea: “We are excited by the thinking involved in the APRIL robotic chef approach. Modular robotics cells may transform food manufacturing kitchens, by breaking up processes in a different way, providing a step change in performance. The trigger for their introduction will be the ability to improve taste, consistency, quality and value of consumer products.”

To maximise the benefits of robotics, APRIL is best suited to new build factories and one of the first APRIL systems is expected to be operational in Europe, manufacturing ambient sauces. The robotic manufacturing cell is particularly designed for batch cooking applications which are typically utilised in producing a wide range of ambient, cold-blend, cook-chill and cook-chill-freeze products for retail, foodservice and B2B (Business to Business).

The APRIL system can incorporate OAL’s Steam Infusion heating and mixing technology that was researched and developed with the University of Lincoln. Steam Infusion is widely used across the UK ready meal market which includes chilled and frozen ready meals, pizza, sauces, soup, condiments and cook-in sauces. By incorporating it into a robotic manufacturing cell, the traditional bottlenecks of ingredient loading and cleaning are removed.

With UK ready meals set to grow by an average of 3.2% annually over the next four years to reach approximately £5.78bn in 2020, there will be demand for increased production capacity. It has been suggested that new product development, coupled with new process development is vital for achieving such growth forecasts. APRIL is expected to be an enabler for new product development, helping manufacturers meet the consumer's' demand for premium, healthy and natural products.
Traditional soup, sauce and other liquid-based product manufacturing typically utilise large fixed cooking kettles (500 to 3000kg) requiring pumped and manual handling transfer systems for moving ingredients and finished product from process to process. This leads to prolonged manufacturing times, variable product quality, product waste and high energy usage.
The APRIL system incorporates a semi-autonomous system that combines state of the art cooking and materials handling technologies with automated robotic ingredient loading, currently using vessels between 50kg and 750kg. The integrated system has been developed to produce higher quality food with unprecedented flexibility, and offer increased process consistently at a faster rate. This will reduce ingredient wastage and energy costs while taking up to 50% less factory space. The system is now being further developed and tested in the dedicated ‘Robotics & Automation’ food processing hall at the University of Lincoln’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing, Holbeach, Lincolnshire.
Parallel processing
Parallel processing is the processing of recipes by dividing them among multiple modules with the objective of running a recipe in less time.

Traditional cooking systems only run one recipe at a time. An ingredient loading operation that takes 45 minutes, a cook that takes one hour and a clean of one hour, would take a total of two hours 45 minutes to run.

Parallel processing allows the execution of both modules together. The system would start a recipe, and while it was waiting for it to complete, would execute the other recipe. The total execution time for the two recipes would be a little over one hour. As the number of increases and processing steps the time-saving increases further. Manufacturers will, therefore, need less equipment to run at the same capacity.

Gaining flexibility
Having the ability to adapt is key to staying ahead in the food manufacturing sector. A key restriction for many food batch production businesses using traditional cooking processes is a lack of flexibility and scalability in their operation.
To increase capacity or add a new processing technology is costly and time-consuming. Significant downtime is incurred while the gantry and pipework are cut and reconfigured to make space for a new device needed to cook the latest soup innovation.

APRIL eliminates the need for gantries and fixed pipework, making the addition of new modules easy. A new ‘cook’ module can be designed, manufactured and tested off site before being placed into the robotic cell. The module is then added to the software sequence and hooked up to services with minimal downtime.

Using APRIL to process food also has the potential to be more hygienic than traditional methods, enhancing food quality and freshness. The lack of human interaction with products and the consistent, predictable and accurate execution of tasks could help reduce contamination incidents, and related product recalls. As APRIL can work autonomously, the system can be placed in a sterilised area and/or an optimised atmosphere to help extend the shelf life of products and reduce food waste.
Lights out manufacturing 
At the start of the robotic batch manufacturing process a works order will be fully digitised from its source which could be a digital works order from an ERP or a paper works order. The digitally formatted works order will then trigger a series of technological scheduling and manufacturing actions. This approach has the benefit of being able to check and optimise the processes required for every unique "production occasion" and ultimately has the potential for products being “lights out” manufactured.

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