New research project on robotics and artificial intelligence in meat processing

4. mars 2020

An EU funded research project called RoBUTCHER is set to find new robotics and artificial intelligence solutions for the meat industry. The project started in January 2020 and is coordinated by NMBU.

The research project aims to increase automation and improve working conditions in the meat processing sector.

-RoBUTCHER will use advances in artificial intelligence and robotics research to increase the accessibility of automation to meat producers, regardless of production volume, enabling much wider standardisation and optimisation of meat processing than today. It also aims to significantly improve the quality of the working environment within the sector, reducing the exposure of workers to dangerous and repetitive tasks, as well as increasing security and equality, says Alex Mason, project manager for RoBUTCHER and Research Professor at NMBU.

Alex Mason, project manager for RoBUTCHER and Research Professor at NMBU.

Important funding from the EU

RoBUTCHER brings together ten European universities, research centres and industry partners, and has been granted considerable EU funding. The Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) coordinates the project, which is led by Alex Mason of the Faculty of Science and Technology (REALTEK) at NMBU. This is the first time the faculty has been assigned coordination responsibilities for a research project under the EU Horizon 2020 programme.

– Co-ordinating a H2020 project is a huge privilege, and it emphasises that REALTEK’s activities in robotics and food automation are at the leading-edge of research and innovation. Projects such as RoBUTCHER also reinforce REALTEK’s ambition to contribute on the international stage toward improving food security, health and wellbeing, as well as being a driving force for new industry innovation and infrastructure, says Alex.

Improved working conditions in the meat industry

In RoBUTCHER, the partners will work towards developing solutions to problems associated with line production in meat processing. All points in a production line are dependent on continual deliveries from the previous point. If one point is weakened or comes to a halt, the whole line is affected.

This will be resolved with the help of so-called Meat Factory Cells (MFC). The MFCs will function as individual processing units with fully automated meat cutting. This means that machines could take over most of the work involving heavy lifting and cutting in today’s meat processing in an automated and flexible process. According to the EU, meat processing plants are amongst the lowest quality working environments in Europe.

Potential for major changes in the sector

The MFCs can be adapted to different processing volumes, allowing greater flexibility and scalability. Subsequently, smaller meat producers can gain better access to technologies for production automation, making it easier for local meat producers with a smaller production volume to run a profitable business.

The core of RoBUTCHER is robot-technology with a focus on artificial intelligence and cognition, in addition to Cooperative Human-Robot Interfaces and Cognitive Mechatronics.

RoBUTCHER builds on existing research at NMBU in the project MeaTable.

– RoBUTCHER is a highly disruptive concept for the meat sector, with success leading to the development of, perhaps, one of the most advanced robotic systems to-date. This advancement does not come without challenges, with meat products representing some of the most difficult materials for robotic systems to understand and handle due to their flexible and variable nature. Fortunately, several partners within the consortium have experience in these issues from previous and on-going activities, says Alex.

The entire value chain represented

The RoBUTCHER project unites a broad spectrum of partners from seven European countries, spanning the whole value chain of the meat processing industry.

– The project partners comprise an essential mix of stakeholders, which brings extensive knowledge of the meat sector across Europe, the ability to develop knowledge through research, and the capacity to deliver to end users through suppliers. In addition, the project includes a group of end users, ensuring RoBUTCHER delivers what producers actually want, says Alex.