Food Automation researchers at the University of Salford undertake advanced scientific research to develop all aspects of the food chain production process and to address the key needs of process automation and robotics within the food industry.
The main objective of this research is to provide the food industry with fully functional, low cost and customized robotic and automation solutions. This ranges from the development of flexible, multi-function grippers that can both hygienically handle unpacked food products and, in the case of specialised grippers like our lasagne gripper, to deal with special shaped foods, to the design of prototype machines for pet food production lines.
The food sector, along with aerospace, is one of the key industrial priorities for the University of Salford co-ordinated Marie Curie Initial Training Network, SMART-E (Sustainable Manufacturing through Advanced Robotics Training in Europe). With a total budget of approximately €4 million. SMART-E provides a leading European Doctoral Training programme, training 15 high calibre Researchers in the areas of Dexterous, Soft and Compliant Robotics in Manufacturing; Reconfigurable and Logistics Robotics; and Safety & Human Robot Interaction.
The Research Centre has developed numerous automated systems for the food industry on a commercial basis. This has involved working with the smallest of SMEs to large multinational companies.
Some examples include:
The group has extensive experience developing end effectors and grippers for grasping difficult to handle products. This project concerned the development of 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 notoriously 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.
This project considers automation in the preparation of Brussels sprouts as a value added food item. Within the processing of Brussels sprouts several tasks already have automated solutions but these require that the sprouts be fed to them in an exact and repeatable manner. To achieve this, feeding of the machines is performed manually. The work explored options for automating this product feed. A prototype machine was developed and tested using real products and was found to be capable of aligning 30 sprouts per minute in the desired orientation. This was achieved by exploiting the unique way in which a Brussels sprout rolls.
The pre packed sandwich market is enormous but the production of sandwiches is very labour intensive. This project involved the design, construction and testing of an automated system for the assembly and packaging of triangular sandwiches. The work analysed the current manual production techniques and developed a number of modular workstations which could be incorporated into an existing line in place of human operators. The machine developed completes the final assembly of the sandwich and then cuts and packages it into a plastic skillet (container) for dispatch. To test the overall performance of the system real plant trials were conducted with the machine in a sandwich production factory.
Traditional case packing machines tend to be expensive and often limited to a small range of products. Robots offer a much more flexible solution but these too tend to be an expensive and often low speed solution. This project developed a low cost gravity fed packing machine which could be adjusted to place both boxed or bagged products into cardboard cases.