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Looking for productivity gains in ingredient handling

19 March 2018

Currently, up to 5% of a food manufacturer’s turnover will be associated with the costs of raw material handling, weighing and preparation. A new industrial R&D project, led by OAL (Olympus Automation Ltd) in collaboration with engineers, food technologists and computer scientists, drawn from UK industry and academia, aims to reduce this figure by looking at automated solutions for the preparation and handling of raw materials. 

The collaborative project is part-funded by a UK Government grant from Innovate UK through the Materials & Manufacturing research fund funding stream. The project will address the complexity of food manufacturing ingredient variability. In a given day, food manufacturers can deal with over 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 is complexity that has, traditionally, led to high manning levels, waste and inefficiencies.

Deploying OAL’s suite of APRIL Robotics Material Handling modules as their toolset at the University of Lincoln’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing Centre, the research team is exploring how to integrate robotic and automation solutions 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.

Handling challenges
?Andy Riches, group operations projects director at the Billington Group, a food production company involved with the project, explains more about the handling challenges: “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 OAL’s 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. Jake Norman, head of Innovation at OAL explains further: “Weighing out powders presents accuracy and health and safety challenges when undertaken by humans. Using a collaborative robot and smart algorithms from the University of Lincoln, APRIL’s solution can quickly weigh out powders, to a recipe, to an accuracy of 1g with zero cross contamination. In this project, we’re working with English Provender Company, part of the Billington Group, to map out its processes and crunch a year’s production data to analyse what the best solution is, looking at the potential for optimisation at each step.”

Mark Swainson, deputy head at the University of Lincoln's National Centre for Food Manufacturing (NCFM) will lead the research team. Commenting on the project, he said: "To unlock improved value, quality and sustainability, the food manufacturing sector needs a game-changing, innovative reinvention of its production processes. We want to push the practical and scientific boundaries of food process technologies, robotic materials’ handling, machine learning, and computer vision systems. The goal is to produce a full technological solution which provides proof that robotics and automation can be the catalyst for much-needed productivity gains in the food manufacturing industry. The industry needs a step change. All the low hanging fruit has gone. This project is not about marginal gains, it is about identifying a game-changer that can turbocharge productivity in food manufacturing processes.”


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