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Robotics for increased automation flexibility in food manufacturing


Key words robotic, robot, packaging, handling, hygiene, flexible automation, gripper, universal, packaging
Latest version 2013/02/07
Completed by SP, DIL

How does it work?

Primary objective To replace monotonous, heavy, and dangerous manual labour, especially in harsh environments, and thus reduce the risk of work related injuries. Robots will not get bored and will maintain constant product quality.
Working principle A robot system often includes a robot, a robot gripper (or tool), a product sensor (e.g. a vision system), a product conveyer and a control system. These components are interconnected to produce a product flow as part of a manufacturing system. As a product passes the sensor, information of the product location and properties is sent to the robot. When the product is within the reach of the robot, the robot positions the robot gripper at the product, allowing the gripper to securely grip the product. The product is then transferred by the robot to the placing area (e.g. packaging area) where it is placed in a predefined position, e.g. in a tray or package.

Industrial robots are very flexible automation tools and are easier to adapt to new tasks and product dimensions than traditionally used hard automation. For the food industry special attention to the selection of equipment is particularly important, as food products are much more variable and fragile compared to products traditionally handled with robots e.g. in the automotive industry.

A main aspect which has to be considered in food robotic is the sensor technology to equip the robots with more possibilities for interacting with their environment. Optical systems and image processing are tools to enable the robots to ‘see’ the work they have to do. This includes detection of objects (position and orientation) for grasping of products, enabling conveyers filled with unstructured food products to be handled. Application of robotics together with highly developed image processing is one opportunity to achieve a higher degree of automation for food processes that are carried out manually today [1,2,11].
An automated visual inspection is another use for a robot station equipped with a vision system. A visual quality inspection to avoid packaging of products which do not fit quality specifications can be performed. Such an inspection may include size and shape of products as well as surface faults and other visually detectable quality defects. A robot station equipped with a universal gripper and a graphical user interface (GUI) enables the operator to arrange the layout of the products in the trays. By using a drag and drop GUI with product images, traditional programming can be avoided, which might require additional staff training.

With respect to hygienic requirements in food processing robots are often covered by a washable jacket; however robots in wash-down design are also available [4]. Additionally, robot grippers for food handling under hygienic conditions are required [3,8].

Additional effects Robot solutions enables increased productivity, increased production flexibility, reduced cost, increased quality and increased hygienic safety of food products. Specific additional effects are:
  • It is possible to include automated quality inspection and sorting
  • Higher output rate (compared to manual labour) and a more continuous operation
  • Compared with hard automation lines the flexibility of a robot station can shorten changeover times,
  • Enables 24h production
  • Robot handling solutions can become attractive to SMEs if the system allows for multipurpose use (high flexibility) and fully automated small series production.
  • Tools can be automatically decontaminated, e.g. grippers dipped for a short period in hot water or steam after every 50’s pick.
  • Product variation or personalization (portion size, layout) can more easily be increased by easier reprogramming.
  • Reduce the cost of product changes and increase product handling flexibility
Important process parameters processing parameters:, e.g. output rate availability of sensors, grippers and functional vision system.
Important product parameters product parameters:, e.g. size, surface properties, mechanical sensitivity [9]

What can it be used for?

Products Most packed or unpacked individual solid and semi-solid foods pieces.
Operations So far, commercial application of robots in food industry is widely spread at the end of processing lines like packaging and palletizing [7]. Picking and placing items such as cookies, hamburgers, chocolate pralines, croissants, chicken fillets or pancakes into primary packing. Examples of robot applications in food processing apart from packaging are the automated slaughtering of pork carcasses and deboning [6, 10]. Additionally, robots are already used in baking lines to handle hot trays.

Automated functions:

  • Packaging
  • Handling
  • Orientating
  • Aligning
  • Sorting
  • Slaughtering
  • Palletizing, de-palletizing,
  • Inspection
Solutions for short comings A technology for an increased flexibility in automated food handling in processes during food manufacturing considering hygienic aspects and removing monotonous and repetitive manual tasks. This technology enables a higher flexibility in production and thus makes it less costly to follow consumer trends. It might furthermore enable SMEs to invest in automation as a robot system can be used for multiple and various tasks and with an adjustable production speed.

What can it NOT be used for?

Products Bulk products (e.g. peas or diced vegetable mixes) or liquid products (e.g. sauces or soups).
Operations Very sophisticated manual operation sequences, e.g. manual peeling
Other limitations The equipment might need trained staff. This need can however be reduced as development progresses and equipments becomes more and more user friendly.
Risks or hazards Possibilities of product cross contamination due to improper hygienic design, damaging and loss of product during robot handling.

The robot working area must be surrounded by some sort of protection (fencing or maybe light barriers) to avoid injuries on workers.


Maturity Robotic solutions are industrially available for many food processing operations such as e.g. picking and placing cookies, hamburgers, chocolate pralines, croissants, chicken fillets or pancakes into primary packing. Other processes e.g. slaughtering are still not as common but are increasing. In other industries robots are widespread e.g. in the car assembly industries or electronics industry.

Much development and research is however conducted to increase the usefulness and to allow variable and fragile products to be handled.Vision systems tools must become more adapted to handle and identify food products. It will probably initially be hard to achieve a high degree of flexibility and at the same time maintain extremely high production speeds (as often is used in automated food manufacturing). It can be expected that sensor and grippers technologies will be continuously developed during the next years, e.g. recognition of shapes using 3D imaging, and further applications will be realizable for automation in food processing using robots [9], e.g. bin picking.

Modularity /Implementation The technology can be easily implemented in existing lines (packaging) as they generally are requiring a relatively small space. New technology can likely be adapted to existing robot station be e.g. changing grippers or control/vision software.
Consumer aspects This technology should probably be as accepted as ordinary automated food industry equipment.
Legal aspects ISO 10218

Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC Regulation (EC) No 1935/2004 (materials in food contact) Safety must be considered to avoid the risk of physical personnel injuries by e.g. fencing in the robot workstation (Same legal aspects as for other robot stations).

Environmental aspects In a future technology development robots can potentially work autonomously in a small confined production area with only vision system lights. This would significantly reduce the energy needed to chill large factory buildings and also reduce cost for lighting [5].

Further Information

Institutes DIL, SP, Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), DMRI – Danish Technological Institute
Companies ABB, Kuka Robotics
References 1. Brogardh T. (2007) Present and future robot control development - An industrial perspective, Annual Reviews in Control 31 (1) 69-79

2. Chua P.Y.; Ilschner T. and Caldwell D.G. (2003) Robotic manipulation of food products - a review. Industrial Robot 30 (4) 345-354.

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

4. Holmes J.F. and Holcombe W.D. (2010) Guidelines for designing washdown robots for meat packaging applications. Trends in Food Science & Technology 21 (3) 158-163.

5. Gray, J. O. (2001). Automated Food Assembly Driver for Progress in the Field. In Proceedings of Food Factory of the Future, pp. 59-63, Gothenburg, Sweden

6. Hurd S.A.; Carnegie D.A.; Brown N.R. and Gaynor P.T. (2005) Development of an intelligent robotic system for the automation of a meat-processing task. International Journal of Intelligent Systems Technologies & Applications 1 (1-2) 32-48.

7. Peters R. (2010) Robotisation in food industry. Gothenburg: 5th International Conference on the Food Factory for the Future.

8. Pettersson A.; Ohlsson T.; Davis S.; Gray J.O. and 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, 344-351

9. Ruiz-Altisent, M.; Ruiz-Garcia, L.; Moreda, G.P.; Lu, R.; Hernandez-Sanchez, N.; Correa, E.C.; Diezma, B.; Nicolaï, B.; García-Ramos, J. (2010) Sensors for product characterization and quality of specialty crops - A review. Computers and Electronics in Agriculture 74 (2) 176-194.

10. Wurdemann H. A.; Aminzadeh V.; Dai J. S.; Reed J. and Purnell G. (2011) Category-based food ordering processes, Trends in Food Science & Technology 22 (1) 14-20

11. Yao W.; Cannella F. and Dai J. S. (2011) Automatic folding of cartons using a reconfigurable robotic system. Robotics and Computer-Integrated Manufacturing 27 (3) 604-613.

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Created by Evelina.tiback on 7 February 2013, at 12:58