ATRP’s Robotic Prototype Explores
Applications in Poultry Further Processing
Georgia Tech’s robotics
program remains at the forefront of research and development efforts focused on bringing
viable automation alternatives to the poultry industry. Its innovative robotic prototype,
the Intelligent Integrated Belt Manipulator (IIBM)/case packer, has already proven
successful as a case-packing system. Previous trials at ConAgra Poultry’s Gainesville,
Ga., poultry plant confirmed the IIBM’s ability to accurately grasp tray-packed poultry
products from a moving conveyor belt and place them in packaging cartons for shipping.
Researchers are now focused on using the IIBM for automation tasks in the further
processing areas of a poultry slaughter plant.
Top view of the prototype
Wiley Holcombe, project director, explains that current research and development
efforts center on integrating the IIBM case-packing system with a commercially available
weigh/price/label line to be installed at Gold Kist’s Live Oak, Fla., poultry plant.
“The case packer is going to take tray packs off a conveyor after they have been
weighed and labeled and pack them in a shipping case,” continues Holcombe.
Nominal throughput of
the lines is 35 trays per minute. During the ConAgra field tests, the IIBM packed
trays at about 20 trays per minute, while lab trials were at 30 trays per minute.
Holcombe says that the team has since estimated the average throughput over a month
to be about 45 trays per minute (based on a month of production data). However, the
team has measured rates around 60 trays per minute for short periods on small tray
Still, the team believes the performance of the case packer can be further improved.
“The first steps that we took on performance improvement were focused on the IIBM’s
gripper,” explains Holcombe. He believes the reason the IIBM was only able to run
at 20 trays per minute during the ConAgra trials was because of grasping reliability.
To address this challenge, the team has designed and built a centrifuge to test the
IIBM’s suction-cup gripper.
“The centrifuge allows us to test the grippers at much higher accelerations than
we can generate on the case packer. Based on the results of recent tests, we are
confident that we have a revised gripper design that can grasp reliably at higher
packing rates,” notes Holcombe.
The team is also conducting tests to establish what the best achievable performance
is with the IIBM’s existing hardware. Holcombe says the team is considering hardware
changes such as replacing the motors and motor amplifiers to increase case-packing
Centrifuge built to test
For the upcoming Gold Kist trial, the team will install a new weigh/price/label line.
Holcombe explains that this will allow the team to run the trial without hurting
As for the trial setup, the team will position the case packer adjacent to the weigh/price/label
line. Cases will flow down the conveyor to the packing location. Trays flow across
a scale conveyor, under a label applicator, and down a second conveyor to the pick
location. The tray conveyor surface is two feet above the case conveyor. The case
packer picks up the tray with a vacuum gripper, moves horizontally in the direction
of the conveyor flow, then moves down into the case and releases the tray. It has
an offset motion and a rotation to allow it to pack a variety of packing patterns.
The team plans to install the new weigh/price/label line and case packer in Gold
Kist’s plant in June. “We expect to have a month or more of operational experience
by the end of the year,” says Holcombe. “After the prototype has been running in
the plant for several months, we will hold a performance review at the plant. At
that time, we will identify problems that need to be corrected on the machine. We
will then address those problems and push the product toward commercialization.”
Holcombe says commercialization of the case packer is very promising. A number of
manufacturers expressed interest in the prototype during a demonstration at the International
Poultry Exposition held this past January in Atlanta. It is also interesting to note
that approximately 25 percent of the more than 250 poultry slaughter plants in the
United States use some sort of tray packing. And pre-packs represent 16.8 percent
of the 27 billion pounds of total poultry production.
“We estimate the total potential case packer sales to be 160 to 170 units in the
poultry industry alone. There are also potential applications in the red meat industry
for case packing product in vacuum-sealed plastic bags or in styrofoam trays,” comments
In addition to the work on the weigh/price/label line and case packer, the team is
working with Elrad Computer & Control Systems, Inc. of Tucker, Ga., to develop
an automated system for packing marinated breast fillets into trays.
Elrad develops, manufactures, markets, and services vision-based automation, robotics,
and control systems for industrial applications. The company has extensive experience
in the field of food processing automation with over 120 successful installations
worldwide. The majority of Elrad’s development and marketing efforts are currently
focused on the Auto-Pack 100, a unique two-axis “pick and place” system for the handling
of food products on a production line. A four-axis system, the Auto-Pack 200 is also
available and doubles the capacity to 120
pieces per minute.
Elrad Computer and Control
Systems, Inc. Auto-Pack 100.
The smaller-scale Auto-Pack 50 robot being developed as part of this project has
a single axis, low profile, and is modular in design, meaning several single-axis
units can be combined to form a multiple robot pick and place system. The low-cost
Auto-Pack 50 is flexible and can be easily adapted to work with existing manual tray-pack
Elrad’s first-generation system can pick poultry and meat fillets and place them
accurately on trays in an “overlap” mode (see Figure 1). The system can load and
pack 30 pieces of product per minute from a moving conveyor into a retail tray. Elrad
is also working on a second engineering design that enhances the system’s special
gripper with a side-by-side tray presentation (see Figure 2). The ultimate goal here
is to place the product with folded edges, side-by-side without overlapping.
Holcombe says the team plans to complete the installation and testing of the Elrad
prototype by the end of FY 2001.