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Grippers for automated food handling (food packaging)


Key words robotic, packaging, gripper, handling, hygiene
Latest version 2012/07/17
Completed by DIL

How does it work?

Primary objective Grasping, transport and depositing of food pieces in the automated packaging of food products by robots equipped with grippers to save labour costs and to improve hygiene
Working principle A critical device of handling automation (Robotics in food manufacturing processes) by robots is the gripper which directly contacts the food product [7,8]. Quality control and hygienic aspects have to be considered in gripper design. Because standard grippers known from other robot applications do not meet the special requirements for food handling, e.g. broad variability of shapes and hygienic design, new gripping concepts are necessary. (Vision system for robot guidance and food inspection)

Mainly two gripper principles are currently found in the industry for food handling. 1) Vacuum grippers use a local vacuum space between the upper product side and gripper. Such a gripper has the advantage to be independent of the shape of the whole product. A drawback may be the vacuum generation system where suction of moisture or product residuals may lead to a contamination of internal ducts. New solutions for vacuum grippers meeting the high hygienic requirements of food handling have been developed [2]. 2) Mechanical grippers have a closed gripper design and can be used for hygienic sensible foods. However, there is limited size variability of such a gripper principle.

New gripper principles have been developed also for use in food handling.

  • One example is the magnetorheological gripper [5,6]. In this gripper, a special substance for which firmness can be controlled by a magnetic field is used enabling a broad variability in size and shape of products to be handled.
  • Air flow grippers according to the Bernoulli-principle may open additional opportunities for handling of special foods, e.g. very sensitive products, as they allow for non contact handling [1].
  • So called ‘cryo grippers’ generate the holding forces by local freezing of product surfaces. Soft grippers with ‘fingers’ can handle surface sensitive products [3].

The mechanical grippers can be equipped with force sensors to detect and control contact forces and to react on these signals during gripping, to avoid loss or damage of product [4].

Additional effects
  • removal of hard and monotonous work at the end of production lines, high reproducibility of the packaging process, e.g. adjustment , visual quality inspection and sorting by camera systems and image processing,
  • weighing, higher output rate, a more flexible production line, shorter changeovers and a more continuous operation
Important process parameters packaging rate and handling distances
Important product parameters properties of the products to be packed like shape, mass, surface properties, texture, colour, variation in shape,

gripping opportunities, separation of products

What can it be used for?

Products solid and semi solid food pieces, unwrapped and wrapped
Operations handling, positioning, packaging
Solutions for short comings technology for a fast, flexible, reliable and hygienic food packaging process

What can it NOT be used for?

Products very small pieces and powders, fluid products, very soft products
Operations packaging of products described above
Other limitations most commercial grippers are limited to a relatively small product
Risks or hazards </span)
  • possibility of cross contamination of products in case of improper gripper design and operation
  • packaging of products which do not fit quality requirements
  • product damaging
  • loss of products during transportation by the robot


Maturity industrially available for many food products, some limitations in handling of unpacked products which are hygienically sensible, e.g. meat pieces; widespread in other industries, e.g. pharmaceutics
Modularity /Implementation widespread for packed foods as secondary packaging system (consignment), several applications for primary packaging
Consumer aspects Consumers perceive the technique as safe
Legal aspects Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC

Regulation (EC) No 1935/2004 (materials in food contact) ISO 10218

Environmental aspects saving cleaning and disinfection materials

Further Information

Institutes DIL, SP
Companies ABB, Bosch Packaging Systems
References 1. Davis S.; Gray J.O. and Caldwell D.G. (2008) An end effector based on the Bernoulli principle for handling sliced fruit and vegetables. Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 24 (2) 249-257.

2. Franke K. and Hukelmann B. (2011) Hygiene and functionality united. Fleischwirtschaft International 91 (1) 60-61.

3. Ilievski F.; Mazzeo A. D.; Shepherd R. F.; Chen X. and Whitesides G. M., Soft Robotics for Chemists, 2011, Angewandte Chemie, 123, 1930-1935

4. Li Y. and Zarrugh M. Y., Kinematics and force control of robot grippers, 1983, Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan, Center for Robotics and Integrated Manufacturing, research report

5. Pettersson A.; Davis S.; Gray J.O.; Dodd T.J. and Ohlsson T. (2010) Design of a magnetorheological robot gripper for handling of delicate food products with varying shapes. Journal of Food Engineering 98 (3) 332-338.

6. Pettersson, A.; Ohlsson, T.; Davis, S.; Gray, J.O.; Dodd, T.J. (2011) A hygienically designed force gripper for flexible handling of variable and easily damaged natural food products, Innovative Food Science & Emerging Technologies 12 (3) 344-351.

7. Sandler B.-Z. (1999) Robotics, Chapter: Manipulators, S. 314-384. San Diego: Academic Press.

8. Wolf A.; Steinmann R. and Schunk H. (2005) Grippers in Motion - The Fascination of Automated Handling Tasks. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer.

Patents (examples):

9. Wood T.M., Article handling apparatus and methods, 1990, London: PA Consulting Services, Patent GB 2232656

10. Hjalmarsson H. and Jonsson E.B., Robot gripper for food products, 2009, Kopavogur, IS: VALKA EHF, Patent US 2009/238670

11. Schreiber M. and Wolf A., Gripping device having two sucker heads and a mechanical gripper, 2009, McLean: Mars Inc., Patent WO 2009/7053

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Created by Claudia Siemer on 17 July 2012, at 14:14