Robotics is a word the meat industry is beginning to hear more and more of, as the market becomes increasingly driven by efficiency and cost savings. With labour proving not only hard to find, but also expensive, machinery manufacturers are the knights in shining armour, riding to the rescue of the processors with solutions that can help improve production and cut costs. AEW Delford is hoping to lead that charge with its latest products, the star of which is its IPL Batcher.
A STAR IS BORN
The batcher, which features three robot packers, can effectively replace an entire human packing line and pack up to 240 portions a minute, producing fixed-weight packs in a variety of sizes and formats. Richard Seager, technical director, says the company has been developing the machine for the past nine months, with a total investment of over £250,000.
Combining the batcher with AEW Delford's check-weighers and its vision system allows processors to create a compact packing line, which auto-matically weighs each portion. The vision system then determines the size, shape and position of the product. All of this information is formulated by a computer and communicated to the robots, which load the packs, ensuring the required weights, presentation and style are met. The potential to have up to three lanes of trays on each side of the robots means the arms can access up to 18 packs at any one time. Portions that do not meet the required specifications can simply go by and be diverted into a bulk or foodservice pack.
Seager says there are multiple benefits to using the batcher, including reduced labour, reliable and consistent production, minimal giveaway and superb product presentation. "You can pretty much programme it to do what you like," he says. The batcher is able to cope with a wide variety of products, from red meat to poultry and even fish.
While the system itself is cutting-edge, the company is working hard to ensure its controls are as straightforward as possible. "We're using the industry-standard operating system," says Seager. "We've kept it so that what people
see is the same as on older, existing equipment - but behind all that, it's all about change management and making it easier for the operators. We're just responding to customers' demands."
Another key benefit of the machine, he says is the quick changeover time which allows operators to switch between products simply and quickly. Belts are easily detached and adapted and the robot gripper hands are developed with a quick-release mechanism.
"It's so important to pick food up without damaging it, and using our grippers, we can now pick it up
more delicately by machine than we can by hand," says Seager.
THE MAREL CONNECTION
Both Seager and marketing consultant Terry Starkey attribute the development of the batching machine to the company's new relationship with Marel Food Systems. "We've been owned by Marel for just over a year now," says Starkey, "and we've had considerable investment in the company. The benefit of Marel's involvement is that, although they're a big corporation, they're still primarily engineers, and they understand the need to invest in technology and facilities."
That increased investment will soon see AEW Delford expand further and plans are now being considered to either extend its facilities in Norwich, or build a new factory elsewhere in the area. "That's being looked at as we speak," says Starkey. Whichever decision the business plumps for, the overall outcome will see capacity and efficiency almost doubled, Starkey adds.
SLICE OF THE ACTION
While the IPL Batcher is generating the most excitement within the company, it's not the only innovative new product AEW Delford is launching; close behind is its IBS 3000 Vision. This new bacon slicer is a high-speed, high-yield slicer, capable of slicing 1,800 bacon rashers a minute. The incorporation of the company's vision system provides on-weight performance by scanning the leading edge of the product before slicing.