Saturday, April 08, 2006

Robots Making Sausage

COLOGNE, Germany: The future of food processing can be seen in a working sausage processing and packing line set up by robot manufacturers at the international trade fair Anuga FoodTech.

Meat goes into a hopper at one end and comes out the other palleted and wrapped for transport, all with minimal human intervention.

About 20 robot manufacturers have pooled together to demonstrate the technology as a complete system.

Robotics holds out the promise of reducing costs by helping to speed up lines, making production more efficient and reducing labour requirements.

The Bremen-based consultancy K-Robotix is coordinating the consortium of manufacturers attempting to push the technology into the food industry.

The robot manufacturers are pushing the technology as a means of eliminating the need for human contact with food products. Workers are a major source of contamination in food factories.

The line at Anuga was staffed with two workers, who fed the line with sausage meat, casings and packaging materials. At an aseptic section of the line, meat is fed into a hopper and is funnelled down one part of the line to be put into casings.

The sausages then tumble on to another conveyor belt at up to 200 a minute.

The completed sausages remain in a closed aseptic system and pass, scattered haphazardly, under a special scanning light on the conveyor belt. The laser light feeds information into a computer about where each sausage is located. The information is sent immediately to two crab-like robots, each with three arms.

Knowing the location on the conveyor belt, the robots are able to pick up the individual sausages as they pass through the aseptic area and place them five at a time in individual meat packs.

The packs pass through a film sealing machine, where air is removed and replaced with an inert gas such as carbon dioxide and nitrogen.

Covered with a plastic film, the packages move to another machine that labels and weighs them to ensure they come within the correct range requirement. The packages move down the line where another robot picks them up four at a time and places them into a carton.

Once the eight-pack carton is full, a larger robot arm, picks it up and places it on a wooden pallet. After 50 cartons are on the pallet, another robot takes over and places it in a machine called the “Octupus”, which bands film completely around it and places it at the end of the line, ready to roll into trucks and off to the grocery store.

Robotics: the future of food processing?


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