December 3, 2018

Lettuce, cabbage de-coring robot developed by FTNON

By Melanie Epp | Contributing Writer

The adoption of automation and robots in the food processing sector is happening at a rapid pace. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, since automation provides a variety of benefits, including higher yields, lower labor costs, better quality and improved traceability.

Dutch food processing solutions provider FTNON has developed a unique robotic solution for de-coring iceberg lettuce and cabbage that does just that. FTNON’s director at its Delft, Netherlands facility, Richard van der Linde, explains how data-driven automation helps future proof food processing businesses, i.e. guards them against obsolescence. He spoke at this year’s Fruit Logistica trade fair, held earlier this year in Berlin.

De-coring lettuce and cabbage can be a time-consuming, labor-intensive and waste-inducing task — when it’s done by hand. By machine, though, many of these issues are addressed. Adapting to the global trend towards automation and robotics, FTNON designed a de-coring robot for iceberg lettuce and cabbage for the fresh-cut sector.

The CoreTakr, said Van der Linde, can process up to 1,800 heads per hour with very little variance in quality or yield performance. Before beginning its task, the robot rotates and scans each head using Intelligent Multi Camera technology developed by Wageningen University. The camera determines product shape by assessing its silhouette. Once located, the robot forces a pin into the core and removes it using three sharp conical knives.

“It can detect the shape and form of the product that is coming by, and it knows how to grab it, rotate it, and take out the core accurately,” Van der Linde said.

The de-coring robot ensures only the undesired part of the lettuce is cut out, he said.

“Next to the machine is a highly educated engineer, standing with his hands in his pocket,” he said. “For me, this is the metaphor of the future of the produce industry — people with their hands in their pocket, looking at a machine, with a Ph.D. or master’s in engineering, just optimizing and judging this system from a distance.”

Wet environment a challenge

FTNON has been running test machines in the Netherlands and the U.K. A lot has been learned through the course of testing, Van der Linde said. Making a machine of this caliber work in a cold, wet environment is a challenge, he said. Waste was the first challenge they faced.

“If you process a product, you want to have as much useable product as possible because raw material prices are rising and probably will do so more in the future,” he said.

The second challenge addressed is the shrinking workforce.

“The number of people available for this work will decrease over the next years,” Van der Linde said. “So labor is something there’s going to be a lack of in the near future.”

The third challenge the robot addresses is quality.

“Your product varies throughout the year and the output that you supply to your retailer or customer needs to be of consistent quality,” he said.

In developing CoreTakr, FTNON looked to the automotive industry where robots are used quite heavily. While automotive robots can easily work with parts of the same shape and size, working with produce creates a whole new set of challenges: size and shape varies from one product to another, and hygienic design is of the utmost importance. For a system with delicate camera technology, the latter can be challenging, said Van der Linde.

The CoreTakr has been eight years in the making, Van der Linde said. First, FTNON started with a patent from Delft University for the gripper technology. Later they began research to see how the gripper would work under processing conditions. Later still, they formed a consortium to develop the base technology needed to develop the CoreTakr. Today, robots are placed in processing facilities all over the world where they’re being used to generate and gather data.

While the images taken of each individual lettuce head or cabbage is used for precise processing, there’s so much more hidden in the images that could be of value to the processor.

“For instance, we could detect the pinking of lettuce heads,” Van der Linde said. “Or we could detect the spots on the cabbage head and make sure that that product does not get into your process.”

MORE: Robots can make some human workers uncomfortable

It can be ushered to another part of the line for manual removal or sent back to a supplier.

Every single day, the CoreTakr produces a vast amount of data, up to one terabyte per unit. There is apparently hidden value in that data, including added traceability.

“Everything that enters your factory and leaves your factory will need a complete service arrangement around it. When are your receipts being serviced? Where are you buying your raw materials?” Van der Linde said. “That’s an additional value we can offer you.”

While it’s easy to look at robotic solutions in the factory as farfetched and futuristic, the simple fact is this: the food service and agricultural sectors will be the first to lose jobs in the coming years. Automation is the future.

“We saw that coming, that’s why we built this machine,” Van der Linde concluded.

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