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Gripping news for the food industry!

07 September 2019

Sophie Hand shares some recent developments in gripping technology that offers solutions for the food industry. 

The ability to grip and manipulate objects has been central to the survival of the human race and, since 1969, gripper technology has done the same for robots.  Recent technology advances are now helping robots to perform many handling tasks in the food industry that, traditionally, have only been possible with the human hand. 

There are a wide variety of grippers on the market to suit different applications. One of the most basic forms is a parallel motion two-jaw gripper.  There are a number of different designs including bellows grippers, O-ring grippers and needle grippers. As well as their physical structure, grippers can vary in how they are powered – they can be hydraulic, pneumatic or electric. 

Despite the number of grippers available on the market, there are still many food industry tasks that pose problems for robots because typical industrial grippers were designed to be task-specific, so not particularly versatile.

Alongside the development of industrial grippers, universities and researchers have been developing technologies that mimic the human hand and in recent years advances in robot grippers and these two worlds are now colliding to offer technology that is affordable, energy efficient and flexible and which is able to overcome many of the traditional food industry challenges.

A gentle touch
Historically it has been difficult for a robot to handle fragile objects with the correct force. A robot handling fruit, for example, must be able to hold items firmly enough so that the fruit doesn’t slip out of its grip, but gently enough that items are not crushed or bruised. The softness of human hands allows for compliant contact where fingers mould against the surface of an object, but this is not inherent to a robot’s grippers, which are traditionally made of metal or other hard materials. Another challenge for robot grippers is to adapt to what they are feeling — something which comes naturally to humans.

There are now grippers available that can quickly but gently handle sensitive food products. This field, known as soft robotics, is a subfield of robotics involving robots that are made with compliant materials, similar to living organisms ? be it the tentacles of an octopus or the fleshy fingers of a human hand.

One company that is working in this area is Soft Robotics Inc, which has developed a flexible gripper to handle very delicate foods. The gripper has a soft enough touch to allow it to handle and sort individual lettuce leaves. 

Dexterity has been another historic challenge for grippers. Many traditional designs have two or three fingers, made of stiff material. While they are effective for picking and placing tasks, they may not be suited to the more complex manipulation activities required in food processing applications. To rectify this, engineers have been developing technologies that more closely resemble the human hand.

One example of this is the RBO Hand 2, a human-like hand with five silicone fingers, which has been developed by researchers at the Technical University Berlin. The fingers on this hand are controlled by pressurised air, which causes them to curl and straighten when carrying out a certain task.  The design means that it can create complex geometries. It can mechanically adapt to the shape of an object and has low impact energy.

Another example of a company developing soft robotics based on the human hand is the Shadow Robot Company. The company specialises in grasping and manipulation for robots and has developed the Dexterous Hand, with 20 actuated degrees of freedom, absolute position and ultra-sensitive touch sensors. The device is therefore suitable for automated tasks that require a close approximation of the human hand such as sorting and packaging products. 

Whether it is meat, fish or cheese, food processing companies are increasingly automating their handling jobs – including picking and sorting. Developments in gripper technology and advances in soft robotics now means that robots can now overcome traditional challenges and moving into new fields of food processing. 

Sophie Hand is UK country manager at EU Automation.

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