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Washdown-Ready Robot Undergoes In-Plant Tests

27 August 2009

A washdown-ready robot for packing fresh meat into trays, developed by Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) engineers, recently underwent 10 months of in-plant testing at Cargill Meat Solutions in Newnan, Georgia.

The in-plant tests were conducted as part of a multi-year study funded by Georgia’s Traditional Industries Program for Food Processing and GTRI’s Agricultural Technology Research Program, focused on verifying the robot’s ability to withstand daily caustic and high-pressure cleanup; its operational performance over extended hours; and its accuracy in placing fresh meat products into trays.

Sean Thomas, research technologist, monitors in-plant testing of GTRI’s washdown-ready robot.

“Robots are prominent in several industries where high volumes of products are produced and handled; however, certain food processing industries have been slow to adopt robotic work cells due to the high cost of existing systems, difficulties in handling fresh meat products, and the inability of robots to survive a corrosive washdown environment,” explains Jonathan Holmes, research engineer and project director.

Holmes and his research team working in collaboration with CAMotion, Inc., an Atlanta-based supplier of high-speed automation for the manufacturing and service sectors, have tackled these challenges with the development of a prototype robotic system that withstands high-pressure/high-temperature and caustic washing while meeting current processing throughput requirements. The robot is a two-axis machine with a pneumatic gripper for grasping fresh meat products. The base axes consist of one rotation axis for transferring the products from a conveyor to a tray and a linear axis to track the product on the conveyor as well as feather products in a tray. Trays are moved on a servo-controlled conveyor to allow researchers to run several products at once to evaluate operation of the machine. The last major component of the system is the safety enclosure, which protects workers from hazardous movements made by the machine while ensuring ease of cleanability.

The robot’s gripper design has been refined for future testing on poultry products.

For the in-plant tests at Cargill, the washdown robot underwent several dry cycles, where the robot was operated at full speed on the two primary axes with cycling of the pneumatic gripper each cycle, but product was not handled. Holmes says results of the dry cycles showed the main drive components would survive operational demands as well as hold up to the rigors of daily cleanings. “Bearings, drive belts, and methods for protecting the servo drive components were proven to be reliable during cycling of the machine. Dry cycling also verified functionality of the gripper. The gripper cycled several thousand times a day for many days during these tests, showing the ability for these high-cycle and high-wear components of the gripper to survive washdown operation.”

The team is currently continuing more dry cycle testing and plans to conduct product cycles in the near future. For these product cycle tests, fresh meat products will be taken from a moving belt and placed in a tray. Holmes says that during these tests, the picking as well as the placement of the product will be evaluated through the use of high-speed imaging techniques. He anticipates the testing period will last approximately one year, entailing daily washdown exposure and hours of dry cycles as well as product cycles.

Holmes notes that although the Cargill in-plant tests involved pork products (fresh pork chops), the robot’s gripper design has been refined for future testing on poultry products as well. Previous testing efforts highlighted handling issues on poultry products because of the higher surface tension of the whole muscle membrane on deboned poultry products. The redesign, explains Holmes, has successfully addressed these issues.

August 2009

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