Hi, robot

Say hi to your replacement in the factory

Since the 1950s robots have been predicted to revolutionise our lives. But while technology has grown out of sci-fi films and become part of everyday life, a robot that does all the housework has still to be invented.

Meat processing is one area, however, where robots are making a real impact. The automation of manufacture that began with the industrial revolution has now reached a stage where the biggest overhead of manufacturing - labour - is being trimmed to the bone.


AEW Delford's IPL robot loading system has cut labour costs, says Tony Ambrose, sales and marketing director. It replaces traditional 'hard' automation systems that feed products down conveyors and into their packaging, using robot arms to position products for packaging and a 'vision system' to identify mishapen or wrongly sized products. A touch screen allows the selection of 99 product memories, giving the system real-time flexibility.

"When you're putting sliced meats into a ready-meal the beef, potentially, might need to be in a group on the left-hand side of the tray, but the chicken has to be put to the other end of the tray because it gives a different appearance when the vegetables and the gravy is loaded into it," says Ambrose. "With hard automations this is very difficult, especially if turning is involved. If you want a product at 45 degrees, with hard automation that is next to impossible. With a robot type solution it comes for free, so there is the flexibility that just does not exist in hard automation.


'Hard' automation is a 'hard and fast' solution. We made that for two decades but there's no flexibility in it. It tends to be a dedicated solution whereas what we provide is a flexible solution. Our machine could be stood across a thermoformer for one week, putting shingles of ham into thermoformed packs and, the next week, it could be in a chicken plant feeding breast fillets into pre-formed trays. It is not truly moveable in the sense that you would wheel it across from one machine to another during a shift but it means that if for any reason there's a dramatic change in your process, it is not redundant equipment. It can be reused in other parts of the business," he says.

People are losing their fear of using this kind of technology, says Ambrose: "One of the limitations to robotics in the past has been a natural fear of starship-type technology, but as people see more and more of this technology, they realise this is not actually the case. It might look very futuristic but, in fact, it is less complicated than hard automation, so all those types of fears are gradually disappearing."


As robotics spread, labour costs will continue to fall, says Ambrose. "The painfully boring job of picking up products and placing them in the final package is going to disappear.

"It's more and more difficult to get people to do that, to stand in a cold plant and pick up products and place it in a pack, so providing a cost effective solution can be found for that and for the hidden costs of providing staff. People just do not want to work in this environment."

Mark Bishop, a director of Interfood, agrees: "It's a constant process and as we all know labour is the highest overhead. Machines do turn up on a Monday morning and they don't take holidays."


Interfood supplies machines that are also pushing the frontiers of automation. Schroeder injectors are developing fast. A new injector system will be launched in the new year employing brand new technology.. "Our injector will be weighing meat before it goes into the injector, once it's injected the amount of brine into, say, a ham, it will weigh that meat when it comes out of the other side," says Bishop. It will then determine whether the correct amount has been injected and can go through the machine to correct the amount if necessary.

Automation is deveopling fast through the whole Interfood range, says Bishop. "Most of our range of machinery now is all touch-screen programmable so things that were manually adjusted not so long ago now, by pushing a button, machines can take over," he says.


A good example is slicers. "You'll have a programme there for whether it's a stack or a shingle or what we call a stagger stack or a platter, all of it is programmable at the push of a button," says Bishop. "The machine will adjust, pick up a slice and away you go. And we go further than that, with our optical edge control and our scanning. We can take a picture of the meat before it's sliced, a bit of bacon for example. If you're slicing a bit of bacon and the bacon becomes narrower or thicker, you want each slice to be exactly the same weight." A scanner ensures the slice thickness adjusts to keep each slice the same weight.


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