Due to their natural variation and the fact they deform whilst being handled, food products are notoriously difficult to handle automatically. The Research Centre has extensive experience of developing end effectors and grippers for grasping difficult-to-handle products.
This project developed a gripper for the handling of delicate sliced fruit and vegetable products commonly found in the food industry. The device operates on the Bernoulli principle, whereby air flow over the surface of an object generates a lift. The gripper allows objects to be lifted with minimal contact thereby reducing the chances of damaging or contaminating the object. The gripper was demonstrated with slices of tomato, which are especially difficult to handle. A secondary benefit of the gripper is that it can also be used to remove surface moisture from the product produced during slicing. This drying effect is a feature particularly useful in some areas of food production. This system has been patented by the University.
Due to the fact that they are coated in starch, fresh sheets of lasagna have proven particularly difficult to handle using automated systems. Instead, they tend to remain stuck to whatever is used to lift them. This novel gripper, inspired by a chef lifting pastry using a rolling pin, was developed by the University. The pasta sheet is picked up by rolling it around a metallic cylinder. When the direction of the cylinder’s rotation is reversed, the pasta is unwound and any adhesion is broken.
One of the issues faced by food manufacturers is that if they change their products regularly, and therefore may not have an end-effector suited to grasping that new product. This means that installing automation can be very expensive as many different grippers are needed. In this case humans are often used as the human hand is multipurpose and people can be re-tasked quickly and easily. The Centre has developed an intelligent multi-function gripper that replicates the abilities of the human hand. The gripper is able to grasp a broad range of food products without any prior knowledge of the object to be grasped or its exact location. The system has been patented by the University.