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UK: Fresh automation solutions from CenFRA

CenFRA is leading centre of excellence for food robotics and automation in the UK. It is supported by Yorkshire Forward and provides impartial advice and guidance on all related activities.

Many in the fresh produce industry find it difficult to see the advantages of automation, issues like factory space, concerns that automation is not cost effective for such differentiating products or fears that switching to robotics could compromise the quality and damage the often fragile or soft products, are all referred to as reasons not to engage.

To allay these fears, CenFRA has developed a very visual discrete event simulation system to simply and effectively demonstrate the advantages of new technology without the need for the physical mock ups which can incur significant costs.

Virtual maps of a fresh producer’s manufacturing site can be drawn up by CenFRA’s team of engineers who use highly advanced software to highlight prospective areas for improvement, whilst at the same time identifying any potential or unforeseen obstacles and influences created elsewhere in the production process as a result of these changes.

Automation and robotic solutions also present themselves as opportunities for businesses to expand and diversify into new areas. Living salads an award-winning fresh gourmet salad grower, was hesitant about committing to new technology on the factory floor but 12 months on from the initial enquiry to CenFRA, the company is reaping the benefits of improved product quality and competitiveness, enjoying a 50 percent increase in production units with a matched decrease in labour costs.

Financing is one of the core issues that has held back the fresh produce industry in investing in new technology and it was no different for Living Salads, who thanks to CenFRA, was able to access a £60,000 grant (40% of eligible costs) through the Rural Enterprise Investment Programme, which offers grants starting from £25,000 and is available to rural businesses in the UK wanting to grow and become more productive.

Introducing automation and robotic systems at Living Salads has not cost people jobs, like many in the industry think, but instead has allowed the company to produce more products, expand the business and ultimately create more jobs.

Founder of Living Salads Andrew Johnson commented: “CenFRA is an impartial, authoritative and crucial link between food manufacturers and automation suppliers and Living Salads was able to trust CenFRA’s recommendations because of its expertise and impressive market knowledge.

It is not just in robotics and automation that CenFRA can help the fresh produce industry improve efficiencies. The company can provide many other innovative solutions to maximise profits, such as identifying ways to recycle waste water and regulating the production atmosphere to ensure the correct ambient temperatures are set for specific products.

CenFRA’s audit engineer Philip Brunger commented: “The fresh produce industry is looking for smarter ways of adding value, minimising waste and ensuring their future sustainability and CenFRA is here to help educate the industry and make it aware of the technology available.

“Different applications require certain capabilities and robotic and automation manufacturers have recognised the burgeoning need for more specific applications such as picking and palletising.

“Solutions from high speed flex pickers to revolutionary vision systems within robot applications can help the fresh produce industry deal with randomly positioned products on conveyors – providing an easy to use affordable solution. Systems are also available for ‘coring’ cauliflower and ‘top and tailing’ cucumbers."

Another major application issue relates to the type of products being handled, which are often delicate or of variable size and shape. Developments in gripper technology are now available to help solve these problems where even delicate fruit, such as peaches, can be gripped without bruising.

Most of the technical challenges to implementing robotics in the food and beverage industry can now be solved and there are many applications for which solutions not only exist, but are proven in production. These range from palletising through to secondary packing, primary packing and even food preparation, such as lettuce processing.

CenFRA offers comprehensive technology audits to identify opportunities and provides practical independent advice on automation options and the suitability of equipment to the specific task.

Steve Blazye
Managing Director
CenFRA Ltd                        
1 Crompton Business Park               
Crompton Road                       
Tel: +44 (0)1302 765680                      

Publication date: 7/9/2010
Author: Nichola Watson


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