Case Study

Developing a Washable Robot for Poultry Processing

Published: May 4, 2009

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Even a hard-working robot needs a good bath at the end of the day. That was the issue facing researchers at the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) as they delved into one of the big challenges in food-processing automation.

Robots have begun to be deployed in many areas of food production, but their use for handling fresh meat has been hampered because such machines would also have to withstand cleaning with high-pressure water spray and corrosive sanitizing chemicals.

At GTRI's Food Processing Technology Division, research engineer Jonathan Holmes led a project to develop a robot that would pack fresh meat into trays, but with a design and construction able to withstand the harsh conditions created by routine washing in a way more consistent with how other equipment is cleaned.

Georgia Tech researchers have teamed with CAMotion, Inc. of Atlanta and are working in collaboration with Cargill Meat Solutions of Newnan, Ga.

The robot's job is to grasp raw meat products from a conveyor and place them onto foam packaging trays. The task requires considerable dexterity to pick up the products without causing damage, place them within the boundaries of the trays in an aesthetically pleasing manner, and provide one more visual inspection. And it has to be done fast - one per second. But that was the easy part, relatively speaking.

"We're used to building automated machines, so the automation side was something we're accustomed to," Holmes explains. "The wash-down side of it was brand new for us - it's new for most people - and that was very challenging. We had to go through a lot of component testing initially just to find components we could use."

The current prototype uses special protective coatings and plating on its metal parts, shaft seals on its motors and other moving parts, and special watertight bearings that are little affected by the wash-down process.

The tray-filling stage of the poultry processing line may require up to a half-dozen human workers and often results in a bottleneck to the process. The hope is that automation of this type would result in increased throughput and lower costs for the industry. In addition, the wash-down technologies devised in this project could find their way into other areas untouched by automation because of cleaning requirements.

This project was funded in part by Georgia's Traditional Industries Program for Food Processing.