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It’s a wrap: robotics, sandwich thins and the future of food production

UK bread baker Warburtons is rapidly automating plants in Enfield and now Burnley, where it’s testing a groundbreaking robot picker on its latest sheet and cut line.
 
Warburtons says the picker is the first of its kind. It uses vacuum technology to pick up three of the company’s best-selling Sandwich Thins at once, deposits them in stacks on the production line and has dramatically boosted in-line picking speeds. 
 
Not only does it triple the number of items picked up at one time, but the use of vacuum suction technology means the device can handle delicate bakery lines - like Sandwich Thins - without damaging them.
 
The nature of food manufacturing has often made it difficult for companies to see how automation and robotics would improve efficiency in the long term.
 
But the change can be drastic:  one food manufacturer, for instance, was able to make savings of £700,000 a year simply by reducing the crust at the end of a loaf of bread to gain an extra slice. Such changes can often only be introduced with the precision inherent in robotics and automated systems. 
 
And these systems are becoming increasingly precise.  In the Netherlands, Richard van der Linde of Lacquey Robot Grasping Solutions, believes that his robotic hand’s mastery at picking up cabbage is now something of a milestone for machines. 
 
With the aid of five cameras, plus sensors in its wrist to monitor the resistance it encounters, the three-fingered gripper can carefully pick up a cabbage, reorient it, and place it into a machine that removes the core. “In industry, only humans can do that at the moment,” van der Linde told MIT Technology Review 
 
Research into picking solutions is taking place in the UK too. Dexterous Hand manufacturer the Shadow Robot company is now working on a strawberry picking project. AUTOPIC is a joint Innovate UK and Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council-funded agri-tech project, led by the UK’s Harper Adams University. The consortium also includes BerryWorld, which  is the leading supplier of berries to UK supermarkets but suffers from seasonal labour issues. 
 
Online retailer, Amazon is also going large on picking. It’s first Picking Challenge, which took place at the recent 2015 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) saw 31 teams from around the world compete for $26,000 in prizes. The challenge set entrants with the real-world task of building a robot that can do the same job as an Amazon stock picker.
 
According to the company’s Chief Technology Officer Peter Wurman, who initiated the challenge, the task of picking items off the shelf may seem simple, but it involves all domains of robotics. The robot has to capable of object and pose recognition. It must be able to plan its grasps, adjust manipulations, plan how to move, and be able to execute tasks while noticing and correcting any errors.
 
This means plenty of sensors and computer modelling, with manipulators used by the various teams ranging from hooks, to hand-like graspers, and vacuum pickups.
 
The first prize was claimed by the RBO team from the Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin), with Team MIT coming second.
 
Progress in this area shows how advances in robotic manipulation technology are opening up new jobs for robots in the manufacturing and food-processing business. Solid, hard, identical objects such as car parts are easy for robots to move around. But delicate, flexible, naturally variable objects such as meat, fruit, and vegetables require much more sophisticated sensing and manipulation.
 
Metal robot hands can crush a cherry tomato and metal fingers can  require a huge amount of code to merely get near an object, they must then must adjust their grip so that it’s not too hard, and not too soft. 
 
Proponents of Soft Robotics believe that, instead of metal, the  combination of unique design and a careful choice of materials, including elastic polymers, may be the answer.  
 
A big advantage is that while other robots must know the exact size, shape, and weight of an object to move it, Soft Robotic hands can use the same programming to grab anything in their path, whether it’s a cabbage or a strawberry. The grippers simply inflate and deflate, which can forge the need for sophisticated cameras and sensing technology. 
 
Warburton has invested £50m in new equipment at Burnley, Bolton and Bristol in the past four years, part of more than £400M invested in the past 10 years. It’s hoping for double-digit annual growth for its Sandwich Thins, which now generate more than £60m annually after launching in 2011. If it’s to continue with double-digit growth, the company sees that robotics and automation is a large part of the equation. But others have not been so far-sighted. 
 
“The food industry is behind some of the major engineering industries in the country,” said Mike Wilson, President of the British Automation and Robot Association, last year. “Everybody knows that the automotive industry uses lots of robots, everybody perceives that robots are the right kind of tool for that industry, but they certainly have their place in the food industry and there are significant opportunities where we can use them in a more widespread way.”
 
Back in 2011, Wilson gave food manufacturers between five to ten years to introduce robotics or face terminal decline. The clock is ticking.  
 
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