Flying food takes off for speed

Novel handling techniques allow the very rapid handling of food products and other delicate items: Tom Shelley reports

Biscuits need not just be conveyed mechanically, they can be flown to different destinations on cushions of air.

Fast moving cucumber and tomato slices can be sorted by conveyors getting out of their way, instead of directing them, and sticky cherries picked and placed at speed, a task difficult for humans, let alone machines.

It is not just food items that can be moved around by such means. The techniques are applicable to anything delicate, and the research group with the expertise in food handling, can also handle and monitor animal embryos.

John Reed, who is leader of Automated Handling at the Silsoe Research Institute, explained to Eureka that while it is possible to float balls on passive air jets, it is not possible to do the same for biscuits. The momentum of an air jet is maintained out to a substantial distance, even though it spreads out. Hence a biscuit will either fail to be lifted, or if the air pressure is increased, "Will rise up and hit the ceiling." It is, however, possible to support biscuits on an air cushion generated above a layer of porous material. The problem then comes at conveyor junctions. Left to themselves, the biscuits will normally continue in their direction of travel. Redirection is found to be best effected by using two opposing sets of air jets, one below the junction for lifting, and the other above, aimed downwards. With just the lower set activated, the biscuit continues on its original path, but switching on the upper set blows the biscuit down onto a transverse conveyor. Using this technology, it has been found possible to convey biscuits at 1m/s and sort them at 8 biscuits/second. Reed is convinced that by using faster responding valves, it should be possible to substantially increase both speeds, without risking damage to the biscuits.

Handling sliced cucumbers and tomatoes for sandwich making has been studied in an Advanced Food Machinery LINK project. One of the problems with these items is that their mechanical behaviour is governed by water film surface tension. Effective friction coefficients sliding down a metal chute can vary over a ratio range of 13:1. Rippled steel can be used to break the surface tension. Air jets can be used to reject imperfect slices, but the blown off items are liable to "Go in any direction." The best method of handling in this instance has been found to be synchronised conveyors. These can be stopped, started, or moved aside to allow unwanted items to drop, which is easier than trying to make them suddenly change direction.

Experimental developments have led to trials of a prototype system by CKF Systems of Gloucester, which includes a vision system to identify items, and the ability to pick them up, sort them, pattern them and place them on the sandwiches. The system handles 120 slices per minute. Development was undertaken using stepper motor drives, but the prototype is a six axis servo system for extra speed. Reed says that he uses steppers for development work, "Because they are easier to work with", but recommends servos for high speed commercial systems.

His proudest and most recent achievement, however, is a system for picking and placing sticky items. In this words, "The Bakewell tart cherry has been the demise of many an automation engineer. The problem is not picking them up, but letting them go."

The patented final gripper design has a strip of 50 micron thick food grade polyester wrapped round each finger. For release, the grasped item remains stationary while the tape progressively peels away as the fingers are withdrawn. The free ends of the tape are reeled in by sprung spools, although they could also be wound in by motors. Either configuration has potential for handling stacks of pancakes, working with horizontal fingers. It then works in the same way as whipping a tablecloth from underneath objects placed on it. A rapid withdrawal leaves the pancakes where they were, provided the pile is not too high. The stacks can thus be placed or dropped vertically onto surfaces or into packs.

Being able to release products without opening the gripper allows objects to be packed into confined recesses or in close proximity to each other. The gripper also has a self cleaning capability that makes it ideal for use in processes that are subject to strict hygiene constraints.

The same kinds of expertise, although not the same methods, have been applied to handling pig and shrimp embryos. In this case the techniques are described as Micro Chamber Technology or MCT. Manipulation of the embryos, which in the case of the pigs are 0.1mm across, and 0.2mm across in the case of the shrimps is achieved using pipettes. Funding is by Sygen in conjunction with a BBSRC research grant.

Design of mechanical handling systems is undertaken with the help of Cosmos Motion in conjunction with SolidWorks. The team is currently evaluating MotionWorks. Reed describes the simulations as being, "On the limit of what can be modelled." Much of the modelling is funded by a BBSRC Competitive Strategic Grant.

The gripper development rig is based on a Rexroth robot, using an SMC cylinder in the gripper itself, with a movement amplifying mechanism.

Industrial products that are as delicate as biscuits include 'green' powder compacts prior to firing. More than a few processes involve handling items that are at some point sticky. Compact packing is a requirement of all industries, allowing the reduction of shipping costs. And the growth of nanotechnology means that more and more engineers can expect to asked to find ways of handling delicate items that are very small.

Silsoe Research Institute
email John Reed at the Silsoe Research Institute
email Simon Miles at the Silsoe Research Institute

"The bakewell tart cherry has been the demise of many an automation engineer. The problem is not picking them up, but letting them go."

Eureka says: Improved high speed handling of delicate items, particularly food items is the goal of many automation engineers, especially as it reduces both damage and cost incurred by using low wage human labour.


* Biscuits can be flown on air cushions at 1m/s and sorted at 8 biscuits/second

* Cucumber and tomato slices can be handled by techniques that take account of variable water film stickiness

* Sticky items can be reliably picked up and released by using film that is peeled back from the item being grasped

For more technical developments see

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