Food Plants of the Future: Not Bigger, Just Smarter

The next generation of food and beverage production facilities will be sanitary, flexible, more pleasant to work in and self-sustaining.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Before the 10-month production season began in August 2012, high-performance drives measuring 8 ft. high and 2 ft. deep and configured on a common DC bus were installed, along with HMIs that gave operators visibility to base voltage, RPMs, default codes and other data pulled from a PLC. The existing centrifuges and the six 300 hp motors that power them remained in place.

Older drives generate electricity while decelerating, directing it to a resistor where it's dissipated, Shively says. The new drives direct the electricity to the accelerating drives. "When you look at the actual draw, it's significantly less, maybe the equivalent of two or three centrifuges," he says. Increasing throughput with existing equipment appeals to every processor, and slashing energy consumption meant an even faster ROI on the upgrade.

Mega-axes of motion

Like VFDs, robots were technological tools reserved for industries with bigger margins than food in the 20th Century. The financial barriers began to crumble in the past decade, and machines with robotic motion now can be found up and down the packaging line and into downstream material handling. The new frontier is in upstream processes, and the first tentative steps are being taken.

The Georgia Tech Research Institute is in the vanguard of that effort, a position requiring long time horizons and funding support. Poultry helps power the state's economy, and grants from firms like Wayne Farms and Tyson augment state funding of R&D at GTRI's food processing technology division.

Efforts to build an adaptive machine for making primal cuts as skillfully as a person date back to the year 2000, says Director McMurray. GTRI calls its solution the intelligent cutting and deboning system, and McMurray thinks it finally will be ready for prime time soon.

Just as ergonomic issues drove Pepperidge Farm to install SCARA robots in 1987, repetitive motion injuries are an issue poultry processors need to address. Minimizing the potential for product contamination from human contact also is an attraction, and labor availability is a growing problem. "You can't go into a poultry plant today where there aren't 10-12 languages being spoken," notes McMurray. "They are struggling to find people."

Unlike packaging, robotics in process automation require a vision system, and technical advances in that area are helping the GTRI effort. But making an incision that runs from the bird's clavicle through the shoulder joint and down along the scapula in 1/7th of a second to meet existing line speeds is the least of the R&D team's current concerns, McMurray says.

The greater challenges are controlling the force of the knife to prevent bone chipping, and matching the precision of the human hand in maximizing yield. Removing even 1 percent less breast meat than the average worker translates to an annual $2-3 million loss for a typical Georgia poultry plant, he estimates.

"Basic 2-D cuts are being automated in protein processing, but these are 3-D cuts," McMurray adds. "It's a lot more than following the dots with the blade. There's a finesse, a skill that makes this work something special. We're adding finesse to the system."

While he is optimistic GTRI will find a systems integrator or robotics OEM to license its technology and bring a food bot to the processing floor, McMurray concedes a champion is needed to push the technology over the commercially-ready finish line.

And that champion needs to be a poultry company with deep pockets, cautions Rick Tallian, segment manager-U.S. packaging robotics at ABB Inc., Auburn Hills, Mich. Sanitary robotic assemblies suitable for a USDA washdown environment still need to be developed, and that work won't proceed without revenue assurances. "Companies can't spend $5 million for development and get one order," Tallian points out.

Before joining ABB, Tallian was a systems integrator. He was involved in the first Pepperidge Farm installation in Willard, Ohio, helping to engineer a system for single-pack cookies for foodservice. "We needed to know the end customer's focus and requirements; we needed a company like Pepperidge Farm to say, 'We'll jump off the cliff with you' to develop the technology," Tallian asserts. A similar champion is needed for the intelligent cutting and deboning project.

The obstacles are daunting, though game-changing advances may facilitate the next wave of advanced automation. The first SCARA robots at Pepperidge ran 55 cycles a minute, and cycle speeds increased 50 percent over the next decade. But a faster, cheaper solution didn't appear until the late 1990s, recalls Tallian, when Delta pick-and-place robots capable of 190 cycles a minute became available. That kick-started the food industry's embrace of the technology, he says.

The next breakthrough could be bin-picking machines that leverage 3-D vision technology from the gaming industry. If those systems could assemble products like Lunchables while also eliminating the need for infeed conveyors and other components of fixed automation, they could shrink the payback time for a new breed of bot.

Naturally, not all manufacturers are fully engaged in meeting the changing market expectations, and some will ignore the opportunity to reduce operating costs until they are at a competitive disadvantage. Some of those organizations may discover, too late, they have followed an unsustainable business plan.

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