The Autonomous Systems and Advanced Robotics Centre has worked with the food industry for almost 20 years. The first project undertaken with the food manufacturing sector was a Defra funded project ‘Automated Sandwich Making’ (October 2000 until June 2001). The then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) identified a lack of links between the food industry and academics working in the fields of robotics and automation. As a result, Salford University was awarded the contract to host the EPSRC Network on Automated Food Assembly, which ran for 4 years and helped to link academics working on robotics with the food industry and food manufacturers.
The Centre was next awarded the EU European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) project on ‘Automation for the Food Sector’, which ran from 2003 until 2005. This project provided assistance to food manufacturing SMEs in the Northwest region to embrace automation. At the time, much of the region’s food manufacturing was moving to Eastern Europe due to lower labour costs. The project assisted manufacturers to reduce costs and therefore be able to remain in the region, safeguarding jobs. During the project, the University supported approximately 50 food manufacturers ranging in size from as few as one or two employees to medium sized companies employing up to 250 members of staff.
The regional development agency Yorkshire Forward saw the work the University was undertaking with the food sector in the Northwest and wanted to replicate it within their region. They awarded the Centre a three year contract to establish the Centre for Food Robotics and Automation (CenFRA) in 2007 and the University remained central to delivering its services until CenFRA became an independent organisation in 2009. During this period, the University assisted 40-50 food manufacturers.
The University of Salford was also a partner in the EU Framework Programme 6 project ‘Novel Processing Methods for the Production and Distribution of High-Quality and Safe Foods’ (NOVELQ). This multimillion Euro project investigated all aspects of food processing and production and worked with more than 40 food manufactures, including large multinationals such as Coca-Cola, Unilever and Kraft Foods as well as many smaller businesses. The University of Salford delivered a range of innovative and hygienic grippers for handling food objects.
More recently, in 2013, the University of Salford was awarded the €4m Sustainable Manufacturing through Advanced Robotics Training in Europe (SMART-E) project. SMART-E brought together a team of world-renowned experts in the areas of advanced manufacturing, embodied intelligence, novel compliant actuators lightweight, human factors, soft and safer robotic structures using smart materials enabling higher performance, dexterity and agility.
Co-ordinated by Salford, the project team included academic institutions and industry partners from across Europe and included Marel and Agco GmbH. SMART-E produced cutting edge research and trained 15 future leaders (to PhD level) in robotics and advanced manufacturing and addressed challenges in the food sector.
The project advanced the state of the art in dexterous, soft and compliant robotics in manufacturing; reconfigurable and logistics robotics and safe human - robot interaction.