HOME

Researchers Design Washdown-Ready Robot to Pack Fresh Meat into Trays

IN THIS ISSUE

Researchers Design Washdown-Ready Robot to Pack Fresh Meat into Trays

Building “Smart” Deboning Systems

Seeing the Unseen: Infrared computer vision system could help make meat products safer, tastier, and less costly to produce

Emerging Labor-Saving Technology Trends for Poultry Processing Operations

Researchers Make Progress in Design of Non-Robotic System for Chiller Rehang

Electrode Boiler Integral to Mar-Jac’s Feed Mill Efficiency

OSHA Administrator to Address 2007 National Safety Conference for the Poultry Industry

Although robot manufacturers have focused for years on penetrating key areas of food processing plants, high-pressure cleaning requirements have limited their use in fresh processing areas of meat and poultry plants. This type of washdown typically involves the daily sanitizing of processing equipment with high-pressure water and highly corrosive cleaning agents. With funding from Georgia’s Traditional Industries Program for Food Processing, Georgia Tech researchers have embarked on an R&D initiative to build a robot that can not only withstand high-pressure washdown but also deliver the speeds and performance needed to meet current processing throughput requirements.

Jonathan Holmes, research engineer and project director, is spearheading the effort to build a robot that can not only withstand high-pressure washdown but also deliver the speeds and performance needed to meet current processing throughput requirements.

Jonathan Holmes, research engineer and project director, is spearheading the effort to build a robot that can not only withstand high-pressure washdown but also deliver the speeds and performance needed to meet current processing throughput requirements.

“Our research is focused on an area of food processing that has yet to benefit from robotic technology, namely the handling of fresh meat and poultry product, particularly their placement into trays,” explains Jonathan Holmes, research engineer and project director.

The placement of fresh meat and poultry into trays is a very labor-intensive operation, notes Holmes. It is a unique task that requires considerable dexterity and agility of the worker to not only correctly grasp the product but also place it in the tray in an aesthetically pleasing manner. In addition, the worker provides one last visual inspection for defects, making this seemingly simple task a complicated one for an automation device.

“The worker is usually required to work with several pieces of fresh product that must be combined together to present the proper appearance, and all sides of the product must be within the limits of the tray itself. Depending on the volume of product handled and the exact specifications of each plant, it is not uncommon to have in excess of six people per line devoted to this single task, ” says Holmes.

As a result, in many plants, this is a bottleneck in production. Many believe that through the automation of this task, throughputs could rise and costs drop, thus making companies more profitable.

The first-generation robotic system includes a base robot capable of executing the primary motions and an end effector capable of grasping the raw product.

The first-generation robotic system includes a base robot capable of executing the primary motions and an end effector capable of grasping the raw product.

However, according to Holmes, fresh product handling tasks have been difficult to automate. Besides cost, other challenges include a lack of appropriate end effectors to grasp fresh product and sensors to identify and grade the product; the task itself is too fast for conventional robotic devices; traditional robot components do not meet USDA and FDA regulations; and most robotic systems cannot withstand the harsh washdown environment.

Researchers tackled the latter challenge first. In order to design a prototype system, researchers first needed to determine a set of requirements for operating in a washdown environment. They reviewed the cleaning procedures of several different processing plants and determined that a washdown robot’s components should be able to withstand high-pressure washing up to 600 psi and high temperature washing up to 140°F. The robot should also be able to handle four commonly used chemicals: a combination of nitric and phosphoric acid, quaternary ammonium complex, sodium hydroxide solutions, and general foaming cleaners.

With these requirements established, the team performed individual component testing on motors, bearings, coatings, belts, and pneumatic cylinders. Each test focused on the individual component’s ability to function while being exposed to high-pressure washing, including the caustic and acidic cleaning agents previously mentioned.

According to Holmes, the component testing and evaluation were the most important steps in developing washdown robotics. By working from the ground up, Georgia Tech researchers developed automation solutions specifically for meat processing industries. This is an important statement because the typical approach has been to modify commercially available robots, which has proven to be costly and ineffective.

Working with its industrial partner CAMotion, Inc., an Atlanta-based supplier of high-speed automation for the manufacturing and service sectors, the research team developed a first-generation robotic system that includes a base robot capable of executing the primary motions and an end effector capable of grasping the fresh product. A coaxial belt drive is used for the base robot to maximize cleaning efficiency while minimizing space requirements. The end effector was designed to use a unique servo pneumatic system from Enfield Technologies for rotation and standard pneumatics elsewhere.

While the prototype will initially be tested on fresh pork products (researchers are collaborating with personnel at Cargill Meat Solutions in Newnan, Georgia), Holmes says it is important to note that the task transcends a single industry group in the food industry. “The task of placing fresh product into trays is a common task found in the poultry, beef, and pork industries as well as the fruit and vegetable industries.”

Preliminary tests indicate that the robot is capable of production speeds of 1.1 products per second or 67 products per minute. Researchers believe this cycle time can improve to 100 or more products per minute through the addition of a planned second end effector. Cycle time includes picking up the product, rotating around 180 degrees, dropping the product into a tray, and returning to pick up new product again. As part of this preliminary test, the robot was washed with high-pressure water to test the operation of bearing surfaces, with results proving the robot can withstand high-pressure washing.

Researchers are currently continuing tests with more focus on chemical and high-pressure exposure. In addition, off-line field tests are planned for the manipulation device. This test robot will incorporate three major improvements: a vision system capable of determining product orientation, the inclusion of a pneumatic wrist to give the end effector more capability, and the ability to work with two conveyors as opposed to the current static product surface. By adding these capabilities, a fully integrated field test with the prototype is expected.

Holmes believes the successful completion of this project will potentially have a huge impact on food processing companies. First, he notes, the task of placing fresh product into trays could be automated in a cost-effective manner. Second, the development of the washdown technology could then be applied to many areas of the plant where robotic technology is being held back by cleaning demands.

“This opportunity is much larger than the market for tray packing robots, and it is one that represents an opportunity for revolutionizing the way in which the entire food processing industry operates,” adds Holmes.

Photography by Steven Thomas, GTRI.

PoultryTech is published by the Agricultural Technology Research Program (ATRP), Food Processing Technology Division (FPTD) of the Georgia Tech Research Institute. ATRP is conducted in cooperation with the Georgia Poutry Federation with funding from the Georgia Legislature.
Agricultural Technology Research Program – GTRI/ATAS/FPTD, Atlanta, GA 30332-0823
Phone: (404) 894-3412 • FAX: (404) 894-8051
Angela Colar - Editor - angela.colar@gtri.gatech.edu