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Food for thought

22 July 2019

With a recent industry report identifying a shortage of qualified people coming through the education system with the skills that businesses in the food and drink sector need to compete successfully, Charlotte Stonestreet looks at how automation can be used to alleviate the problem

Despite the recent rise in numbers of people having to use food banks, the UK has enjoyed a prolonged period of unprecedented abundance of affordable food and drink. According to the Food and Drink Federation, the UK’s food and drink supply chain contributes more than £121 billion annually to the economy. It employs more than four million people – 14 per cent of the total UK workforce. 99 per cent of our firms are micro to medium-sized. The industry ensures UK consumers can reliably access safe, affordable and nutritious food and drink at all price points.

Innovation in production, highly competitive just-in-time supply chains and rapid export growth to a record £22.6 billion in 2018 meant consumers benefited from a 6.7 per cent reduction in real terms prices over the last decade. Production is so widely dispersed that it touches every community of the UK. Every constituency in the country has a substantial workforce directly employed in the food and drink sector.

As part of a collective of more than 30 organisations from across the UK's food and drink supply chain, the Food & Drink Feneration has published A Recipe for Growth, Prosperity and Sustainability: the UK Food and Drink Industry's Plan for Success, a call-to-action for governments to support and champion the sector.

The publication sets out a clear vision for how for policymakers across Whitehall and the devolved nations can support the industry and, it is hoped, will provide 'food-for-thought', as the UK Government begins drawing up plans for an holistic National Food Strategy, with a focus on post-Brexit food policy.

One of the challenges identified in the publication is that of a shortage of qualified people coming through the education system with the skills that businesses need to innovate and compete successfully. The sector expects to grow higher skilled, better paid employment as it adopts more automation and digitalisation. A programme of co-investment is identified as a possible route to ensure the next generation benefits from better, higher-skilled jobs in every part of the UK, as well as supporting productivity growth in SMEs by encouraging increased uptake of automation.

Fully automated pick & place

While SMEs may still need encouragement in adopting automation, many larger companies are already reaping the benefits. In one example, over the last 18 months Brillopak has installed a range of fully automated pick and place packing lines at three of Morrisons fresh produce and fruit manufacturing sites.

Jason Kelly, Head of Operations for Morrisons Manufacturing has led the automation strategy across their fresh produce business, which includes the recent Brillopak systems installed at Rushden, Thrapston and Gadbrook.

All three sites are delivering improved in-store presentation for apples, potatoes and other root vegetables. What’s more, the turnkey systems can be easily adapted to handle reusable and renewable packaging formats reports Rushden’s site manager Andy Day.

turnkey systems can be easily adapted to handle reusable and renewable packaging formats

Commenting on how automating fresh produce lines can lead to a higher quality product and efficiency improvements, Jason says: “The characteristics fresh produce means that gentle handling is essential to prevent damage and costly waste. Equally important is the need to retain product freshness.”

Historically, the Rushden packhouse, which cleans, stores, packs and distributes thousands of tonnes of potatoes every year, loaded bags of flow wrapped potatoes manually into crates. Now, thanks to two fully-automated and two semi-automated pick, pack and palletising lines, the Northamptonshire site has enhanced its potato packing precision and transformed its operation from an unergonomic roundtable manual crate separation and case loading method, to a safer, high speed, optimised potato packing process. Similar turnkey lines were installed at Gadbrook.

Because of the efficiency of the already automated back end section of the warehouse, the Brillopak packing systems needed to boost the pick and place line speed. Rather than commission a ready-made robotic system, the Rushden team worked collaboratively with Brillopak to engineer a new pick and pack concept.

Unlike other depots that wash, grade, pack, palletise and send out in the same day, Rushden has a separate wash, store, pack and case loading area. Because there’s more fresh produce being processed and stored, space at Rushden is at a premium.

Comprising two long stretches of conveyor feeding bagged potatoes from the manufacturing and bagging operations, each automated line features eight Brillopak elements.

At the start of the line a crate destacker unit lifts and feeds Morrisons’ retail trays at a consistent speed and continuous stream on conveyors to the dexterous P180 spider arm robotic cell. Snaking alongside are the product conveyors. Rumble technology is fitted to a small section on each conveyor to help settle the packs as the feed single file into each P180 Spider Arm Unipick Dual Robot Cell.

Rather than using gripper end effectors that would pierce the potato bags, Brillopak designed a glove-like end effector that wraps around each potato pack robot arm lowering rapidly yet gently into trays at very high speeds.

Filled trays then pass over a vibration panel to settle the potato packs in the crates. This ensures packs don’t get caught when the bale arms close. If the bale arm is damaged, the crate is rejected and the potatoes are returned to the start of the packing process for reprocessing.

The filled crates of potatoes then pass to a double crate stacker, which places one loaded crate on top of the other. From here the double stack is presented to the integrated yet compact palletiser.

For maximum efficiency, Brillopak’s compact palletiser accommodates two pallet stacks side-by-side. When one stack is full the cell door slides open and the full pallet is removed. To protect workforce Health & Safety, only when the cell door closes, does palletising on the remaining empty pallet resume.

Automation & dairy products

Meanwhile Dewlay Cheesemakers has commissioned a new automation system to help apply the expertise of its finest cheesemakers to a wider range of cheeses. The challenge was to introduce new varieties while continuing to deliver exceptional batch quality and consistency. Tritec Developments has provided a solution incorporating hardware from Mitsubishi Electric to develop an advanced tracking and monitoring solution to help supervise and manage the individual processes.

Richard Jones, Operations Director at Dewlay says: “We believe cheesemaking is a mix of art and science as it relies on living organisms. As a result, we need to be able to address this variability by having access to key process parameters and curd quality attributes, as well as by responding quickly to optimise the reactions taking place within the vats.

cheesemaking is a mix of art and science as it relies on living organisms

“We see increasing the varieties of cheese we offer while maintaining our artisan qualities, as an ideal way to expand the business. However, it makes the tracking and monitoring of each vat even more challenging. In fact, the family-owned business uses 20 different cheesemaking recipes, which can vary in the ingredients used and in the processing sequences.”

He adds: “Ours is a fast-paced production environment simply because we have so many cheese vats at different stages of the production cycle, following individual recipes. Our cheesemakers had been doing their best to keep track of timing and procedures manually for all the active vats by relying on their memory, continuously looking at the clock and making notes. However, this approach is not optimal and doesn’t support continuing growth.”

To address these issues and ensure consistent quality throughout the year, Dewlay decided to support its cheesemakers with an automated control system. One that would help them to monitor the vats by providing live, accurate, actionable insight, without limiting the ability of cheesemakers to intervene and modify the curd production process.

To develop a suitable system, the company contacted local control system integrator TRITEC Developments. The team at TRITEC Developments turned to its preferred automation supplier Mitsubishi Electric to help create a bespoke solution. The components selected were supplied by Mitsubishi Electric’s channel partner LC Automation.

Dewlay’s cheesemakers can now monitor the different cheese vats simultaneously, receive alarms as well as adjust the processes parameters in real-time and according to their expertise. The primary interface is a Mitsubishi Electric GOT2000 Human-Machine Interface (HMI). This touch-screen operator terminal was networked to a MELSEC FX3 Series programmable logic controller (PLC).

The control system quickly fulfilled Dewlay’s expectations by ensuring flexible operation and simple process tracking. It has allowed Dewlay to expand by increasing the number of cheese vats that can be monitored as well as the number of possible recipes in use. This allows existing products to be produced more efficiently, alongside perfecting new ones that can then be added to the overall production schedule. The upgrades also resulted in an increase in productivity and overall efficiency.

Food palletising digitalisation

Palletising robots have proven popular in the food sector as they increase productivity, improve working conditions and can be easily integrated into existing production systems. However, the process of integrating palletising robots has traditionally relied on computer assisted design (CAD) drawings and involved a lot of estimation.

The process is modeled in 3D which provides an accurate visualisation of a factory layout

To quicken this step, virtual commissioning is becoming increasingly popular among plant managers, often using ABB’s innovative suite of virtual commissioning tools. Instead of using CAD, the process is modeled in 3D which provides an accurate visualisation of a factory layout. This allows plant engineers to see a digital representation of how the robot will integrate and move within the process and allows them to discover and resolve any potential technical issues before they become a reality, reducing commissioning time by up to 25 per cent.

While developments such as virtual commissioning and remote monitoring technologies both keep factories running, it is the offline programming software that yields efficiency benefits for plant managers. This is software that allows the remote programming of palletising robots without interrupting production.

For example, if a retailer usually asks for four-packs of tinned soup but decides to offer a 50 per cent-extra-free offer, the palletising robot will be required to change palletising patterns accordingly. Failure to do this effectively could result in businesses being unable to supply a sufficient amount of product to retailers, which leads to lost contracts and the risk of heavy supplier fines.

Plant managers can prevent this by digitally reprogramming palletising robots using offline software such as ABB’s RobotStudio, which can be accessed using a standard PC to change palletising patterns. This reduces the time taken to change over and boosts overall productivity to ensure that demands are met.

Strawberry-picking robots

Way before the food industry supply chain gets to palletisation, agriculture too is seeing more and more automation implemented. In fact, Wimbledon fans, who consume 34 thousand kilos of strawberries every year, could soon get their strawberries picked by a small group of new robots that are capable of picking enough fruit for the championships in less than a week. Unveiled by the ACTPHAST 4.0 innovation incubator, it would take just 14 of these new robots less than 7 days to pick and package all the perfect, red, unblemished strawberries needed for Wimbledon.

The ‘Rubion’ bot picks and packages ripe strawberries, bruise-free every 5 seconds with its delicate clasping mechanism, and has the ability to deliver up to 360 kilograms every single day.

Depending on the skill and experience, an enthusiastic human picker can collect around 50 kilograms in a day but will need to take breaks, be prepared to work for very little and can be tempted to eat some of the sumptuous berries.

From beneath, the robot picks individual strawberries grown in raised bedding a few feet off the floor and can sort the fruits by size or weight and pack into punnets as it goes along.

Described as a ‘revolution’ in harvesting fruit, the strawberry-picking robot collects soft fruits like a human, bruise-free at a rate of 11,500 berries (between 180 and 360kg) in a 16-hour day.

the robotic picker detects a ripe strawberry with lasers

With its patented arm-mechanism the robotic picker detects a ripe strawberry with lasers before literally ‘clasping’ a hanging berry from beneath.

ACTPHAST 4.0 supported OCTINION, an R&D company specialising in providing robotic solutions to agriculture and food, to develop the Rubion bot.

CEO and founder Dr Tom Coen explains: “The picking of soft fruits with machines has always been tricky given that they are so easy to get squashed and the sensitivity needed to discern whether a fruit was ripe or rotten, simply wasn’t there.”
“However, Rubion, our autonomous strawberry-picking robot is a novel way around this problem. It is comparable to a human in many ways: the robot only picks the finest fresh, red berries and will not bruise or hurt the strawberries in any way.”

Rubion uses photonic sensors to detect the wavelengths of light, or the ‘signatures’ given off from a ripe, red strawberry according to a pre-programmed set of characteristics the RGB camera built into the ‘eye’ of the robot.

Motors for food packaging

A key player in the food packaging sector, Oriental Motor can supply motors for the whole production line:

- Brushless DC (BLDC) Motors - The majority of food packaging on supermarket shelves is made with a thermoforming machine that uses a hot press to mould the packaging material into the desired tray shape. BLDC motors with hollow shaft right angle gearheads deliver high torque for driving the presses. Standard geared types are ideal for tension control of the packaging material and for winding up the waste material, as well as driving the completed tray conveyor.

- Stepper Motors - Portion control is an essential element of the food production industry; with their extremely precise positioning and rapid indexing rate, advanced stepper motor systems are well suited to these applications.

- AC & Brushless DC Motors - With precise torque monitoring, BLDC motors are ideal for checkweigher conveyor systems. These motors have IP66 ingress protection as standard, so are perfect where production line washdown is required.

- Stepper Motors & Brushless DC Motors - Tray sealers are used to apply cellophane lids to the food trays, hermetically sealing the food inside. Variable speed BLDC motors are used for positioning the trays for sealing and the rapid and accurate positioning capabilities of stepper motors are perfect for applying the lid.