robot-scoop-illustration-mod5The new one-year project aims to enable a step-change in the adoption of robotics and automation to enhance productivity in the food and drink industry. It will be led by engineers from OAL in partnership with the University of Lincoln.

The project is supported by a grant of £448,850 from the UK Government via Innovate UK and the EPSRC’s Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) research fund. It will focus on automating the processes of handling, weighing, and transporting the raw ingredients. It will also make strides in developing key hygiene and food safety features, which will be crucial when using robotic production systems within the food manufacturing sector.

Managing Director of OAL, Harry Norman, says that food manufacturers are facing rising costs and with little opportunity to increase their prices. Hence, they are seeking new and effective ways to improve productivity. He explains that throughout the project, they will be taking a step-by-step approach, “working our way through common operations found across the food manufacturing sector such as weighing, sieving, and moving ingredients around.”

One criticism of automated systems in the past has been the lack of flexibility, but according to Norman, the project “will aim to develop flexible APRIL robotic systems that can handle some of these tasks and take the pressure off food manufacturers.”

The researchers will conduct an in-depth study of the processes currently used in the industry and will then develop new automated raw material handling systems to integrate with OAL’s existing technologies widely deployed across the industry. By automating the handling and movements of raw ingredients, the researchers expect to make major advances in efficiency, quality, and quantity in the production of food products such as sauces and soups when compared with traditional processing technologies.

The research will take place in the dedicated Robotics & Automation Zone of the National Centre for Food Manufacturing at the University of Lincoln’s Holbeach Campus in South Lincolnshire, in the heartland of the UK’s food and drink sector.

The University of Lincoln is a key research partner of OAL, supporting both their recent APRIL robotic chef development and two other projects focused on steam infusion high speed cooking and cryogenic cooling of food products.

OAL St1Stephen White, OAL’s Lead Automation Engineer, has been automating food production systems for his whole career, nearly 30 years, and he believes that the time is right for robotics. “There have been a couple of false dawns but the industry needs a productivity boost and the technology is now available at the right price point – it’s really exciting.”

White says that APRIL is a great example of this in the way she uses robotics to simplify how to cook food. “We’re able to emulate how you would cook at home with small batches with up to half the amount of capital of equipment required in a traditional system.”

Mark Swainson, Deputy Head and lead for Research and Higher Education at the National Centre for Food Manufacturing, also says that this project tackles directly many of the technical and scientific challenges in material handling for robotic automation of food manufacturing processes. “In doing so, it will greatly enhance the potential for companies of all sizes to embrace the improvements in productivity, sustainability, and quality which these technologies make possible.”