Science - April 26, 2012

PicknPack to make flexible robotic packer

More hands make light work when it concerns sorting and packing of food substances. But a smarter way is to use robots to evaluate the quality and freshness, custom-pack and label the products at one go. Led by Wageningen UR, the EU project PicknPack aims to computerize quality inspection and packaging of foodstuff.

Currently, fresh and processed food items are brought into various big sorting and distribution centres where many workers pack them according to uniformity and quality. Subsequently, it takes a lot of logistics and transport planning to deliver these products from the distribution centres to customers. This should be done on a smaller scale and in a more flexible way, envisage the people behind PicknPack, the EU project started in September last year. All the more so as the packaging industry is handling more and more varieties of food products to cater to the choosy consumer. The researchers want to develop a series of robots which can simultaneously evaluate, sort and pack more types of food items for more segments.
'Take a convenience meal comprising meat, potatoes and vegetables,' says Frans Kampers, innovation coordinator at AFSG. 'The properties and quality of the ingredients are currently determined separately. We want to integrate these through computerization.' Sensors can be used to evaluate the quality and shelf-life of the pan-fried meat, the boiled potatoes and the steamed vegetables, sort them and place them on a plate. The meal is then packed and sealed, and its shelf-life and distributor are printed on the packaging at the same time. That involves a great deal of computerization, machine design and robotics. This is precisely where PicknPack comes in.
Compared to people working at a conveyor belt, a robot has the advantage of being able to keep performing monotonous tasks for 24 hours a day, says project coordinator Erik Pekkeriet of Wageningen UR Greenhouse Horticulture, who is carrying out the project together with Frans Kampers and Rick van de Zedde of Food & Biobased Research. Moreover, a robot can pack food in locations with temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius and very little oxygen, conditions which give food a longer shelf-life.
The EU is contributing 8.8 million euros to the project, of which 1.8 million euros are being channelled to Wageningen UR. Other participants include the University of Leuven (which focuses on sensors), the University of Manchester (data exchange among systems) and a Danish research institute which will develop flexible packaging that can adjust its shape according to the product. The English supermarket chain Marks & Spencer is also among the fourteen participants, six of which are private sector companies.