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      Automated Food Manufacturing System and Robotic Flexible Food Manufacturing System - Innovate UK/EPSRC



      Science Impact, Ltd.

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          Food Manufacturers in the UK are facing a 'perfect storm' scenario which is placing huge and unsustainable economic pressures on the food manufacturing system. Labour is year on year becoming more expensive as a result of growing sector competition for labour and a government commitment to increase the National Living Wage to 9 per hour by 2020. Also, factory staff roles are getting harder to fill as 'non-UK national' / migrant labour (which the UK food sector is highly reliant on) moves abroad as a result of the exchange rate reductions in the strength of the GB Pound and more widely as a result of the perceived uncertainties and insecurities of a post-Brexit Britain. In addition, manufacturing costs of ingredients in general are increasing due to market forces and the fact that the UK is a net importer of foods, and therefore consequently many ingredient prices are rising as the strength of the GB Pound reduces linked to post-Brexit market uncertainties. Finally, retailers (supermarkets) and food services (e.g. restaurants) are very competitive sectors and therefore the supermarkets / restaurants place high pressure on the food manufacturers not to increase their end product costs as their manufacturing costs increase. There are therefore significant margin pressures in the food supply chain. On a technological level, the food sector Ð as many other manufacturing sectors Ð must meet the increasingly compelling needs arising from national and international standards and from the market requirements in terms of quality, safety, security, traceability and carbon footprint. This requires an ever-increasing use of robotics and automation systems. Speaking of food manufacturing, we have to make a distinction between primary processing, secondary processing and packaging. Primary processing includes operations on raw food (e.g., cleaning, sorting, inspecting, transporting) while secondary processing includes the operations needed to combine ingredients to produce food products (e.g., blending, cooking, chilling). Food packaging is about all the operations needed to produce a package able to provide the required protection, resistance and physical, chemical or biological properties that food needs. To date, robotics has been widely used in food packaging applications, while its usage in primary and secondary processing is still very limited. As a matter of fact, primary processing is mainly approached using standard automation technologies mainly involving automatic machineries, while secondary processing is typically tackled by means of process control technologies, similarly to what happens in the chemical/pharmaceutical industry. The main factors that have determined a limited use of robotics in food manufacturing until now are two: the cost of robotics technology and the lack of robots designed to manipulate food (i.e., ingredients which are fragile, deformable and which are often in powder or liquid state of matter). While the cost of robots is rapidly decreasing, the problem of designing 'food-ready' robots Ð as I have described in my own terms this emerging type of robots by means of practical usage Ð is still open and globally attracting researchers and technology providers. The two project Automated Robotic Food Manufacturing System (ARFMS) and Robotic Flexible Food Manufacturing System (RFMS) aim at tackling these issues by means of designing fully automatized food manufacturing robotics systems. We can say that the two projects share the same vision of introducing robotics technologies in secondary food processing to increase flexibility, efficiency and security. On a more technical level, ARFMS project aims to use robots to automatically prepare raw ingredients for batch processing, including weighing, mixing and transporting dry micro-ingredients. The RFFMS project, instead, seeks to robotize the overall food processing introducing a number of robotic cells in food manufacturing and coordinating them within an 'Industry 4.0' framework specifically tailored to the food industry. In terms of innovation, firstly, from a robotics point of view, we seek to design a new generation of robots to be 'food-ready' in the short term, i.e., industrial robots that can be used across all the phases of primary and secondary food processing. These robots have special characteristics in terms of manoeuvrability (to move with agility in the food factory), dexterity (to skilfully manipulate food ingredients and products), safety (to cooperate with the human operator) and hygienic design (to meet the food industry hygiene requirements). Secondly, from a production point of view, we aim to coordinate these robots according to a 'smart factory' paradigm, i.e., by wisely collecting and utilizing the deluge of data coming from the production plant to improve efficiency, quality, security and traceability. These two main innovations will allow robots to pervade the food manufacturing sector, and in so doing a new generation of food manufacturing systems will emerge. Speaking of impact, on an environmental scale the productivity advances offered by these robotics technologies will result in food manufacturing factories being able to produce higher volumes in a much-reduced period of time. In addition, there will be far less wastage as the robotic system will work far more accurately and consistently compared to traditional manufacturing approaches. It is therefore anticipated that the 'energy cost' per batch will be reduced by these robotic manufacturing operations. In addition, the far higher throughput rates that the robotic manufacturing systems are capable of leads to the fact that factories can achieve far greater volumes than current with no increase in factory size. As populations grow and land becomes increasingly scarce, this 'high volume output from relatively small foot-print' is likely to be another significant environmental benefit of robotic manufacturing systems. On a socioeconomic scale the increased productivity rates and higher levels of product quality consistency unlocked by these food manufacturing robotic systems will result in the end user food production businesses becoming far more competitive in terms of product manufacturing price points and in terms of maximum output volumes possible from their manufacturing facilities. Competitive 'commercially viable' food businesses are expected to be very good for the economy, being significant employers (Food & Drink companies are the largest employer in the manufacturing sector) and direct contributors to national infrastructure and services via tax payments (and in some cases high potential for export).

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          Author and article information

          Science Impact, Ltd.
          August 20 2018
          August 20 2018
          : 2018
          : 5
          : 89-91
          © 2018

          This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

          Earth & Environmental sciences, Medicine, Computer science, Agriculture, Engineering


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