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Robots and Automation on the Line

18 February 2011

In the meat industry there is a place for using industrial robots rather than bespoke products, writes TheMeatSite editor in chief, Chris Harris.

Off-the-shelf robots have a high level of robustness and also have a proven capability in harsh environments, Andrew Peacock from Peacock Technology told the recent Quality Meat Scotland seminar on research and development in the meat industry.

He said that installing industrial robots has also significantly fallen in price in recent years and that generally the cost of these kinds of robots is generally lower than bespoke machines.

Installing these robots also helps to reduce the numbers of people working on a line and this will not only also reduce costs but also cut the possible risks, improve safety and they improve hygiene in the workplace.

He said robots not only helped to keep labour costs down by reducing workforce numbers but they also got over the problems of finding appropriately skilled staff.

Robots are also more reliable than human labour and they work more consistently.

However, Mr Peacock also warned that robots can also be restricted in what they can do as they often have difficulties in handling non-uniform shapes such as animal carcases.

He said that because of this challenge to the robot, the pig meat industry has led the way in introducing robotics on the processing line, because the carcases were generally more uniform.

Now, with the introduction of technologies such as x-ray and ultra sound and enhanced vision techniques, robots are starting to carry out functions that humans cannot. They can be more accurate in cutting the carcase and deliver a greater yield and often work at a greater speed.

Usually most of the machines that have been used in this way on the processing line have been bespoke technology.

However, there have been some limitations and barriers that have arisen in adopting this technology including the limited reasoning capability of the robot, and the limits to it motion compared to humans. As well as having limitations in handling non-uniform shapes there has also been resistance to their use form employees.

One of the major advances that is starting to be adopted in on-line robots is new vision and imaging technology.

Time-of-Flight imaging makes the handling of non-uniform 3D objects less of a technical challenge.

As part of the Integrated Meat Eating Quality research that is being carried out by the Scottish Agricultural College and funded by Quality Meat Scotland and the Scottish Government, an industrial robot called Motoman is being developed to carry out meat quality inspection.

Mr Peacock said that the ability to handle more diverse carcase shapes coupled with reducing costs of industrial robots suggest that more applications can be expected for these robots in the meat processing industry in the future.

Further forms of visual imaging such as hyperspectral imaging can also be used in the meat processing sector to help map meat and food composition.

Using a greater colour detail across the spectrum - tracking more than 500 colours instead of the conventional three in colour imaging - hyperspectral imaging can be used to identify and determine fat and fat types in meat.

The system looks at the meat as a near infra red (NIR) image, according to Neil Cairns for Gilden Photonics.

"Depending on the application, the hyperspectral image can obtain UV -visible and IR parts of the spectrum, he said.

"This allows image detail that is not visible to the human eye.

"The IR region is particularly of interest to foodstuffs as this part of the spectrum contains information on fat, protein, carbohydrate and water content, effectively creating a fingerprint of the food."

He added: "Identifying fat and quantities of fat in the meat may help with finding meat quality."

February 2011

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