Can robots be used as flexible sorter/packers in the food industry? The European PicknPack project will see fourteen companies and knowledge institutes, led by Wageningen UR, looking for an answer to this question. The aim is to develop a prototype of a robot that can cope with a wide variety of products.
The PicknPack project hopes to make serious progress in the large-scale robotisation of the European food industry. This will save companies money and improve their competitive position. At present, a large workforce is needed to inspect, sort and pack fresh and processed food on conveyor belts. Unlike robots, people cannot keep this up for 24 hours a day. Furthermore, robots can work at low temperatures, which keeps the food even fresher.
The current generation of robots have one big disadvantage: they are somewhat rigid. In order to switch from apples to mangoes, for example, the entire production line needs to be modified. PicknPack hopes to develop a prototype of a more flexible robot, which can cope with a variety of products and is able to pack them into different types of containers. Part of the project will therefore focus on adding information about individual products to the packaging. This could be a very precise ‘use by’ date, for example, or information about the origins of the product.
PicknPack is a joint initiative by the Food & Biobased Research and Greenhouse Horticulture departments of Wageningen UR. Food & Biobased Research has a wealth of knowledge and expertise about innovative techniques for automatic quality control, such as 3D sensors and hyperspectral imaging. The real challenge is to design a robot that can spot defects as efficiently as the human eye. This requires the type of expert knowledge that Wageningen UR has in abundance.
If things go according to plan, PicknPack will result in a prototype of a machine that is not only capable of inspecting, sorting and packing a range of products, but can also cope with a variety of ingredients, such as ready-made meals containing meat, vegetables and potato that must be packaged and sealed automatically after inspection. This will allow companies to respond to the changing requirements of consumers by quickly switching to new product combinations. In addition, one machine that can sort and pack all products would be a more feasible option for the smaller market players.
Marks & Spencer
Fourteen partners are taking part in PicknPack. Among the six companies are the influential British supermarket chain Marks & Spencer, and Marel, the leading global producer of equipment for the food processing industry. The project was launched this year, has a budget of close to € 12 million and will run for four years.