Have a robotics work cell project in a meat plant? Need to keep it clean to USDA regulatory standards on a consistent basis? Why commit the washdown job to humans who complain about the messy, slimy and dangerous equipment, environment and chemicals; can’t get the job done adequately; and/or waste water and chemicals? Why not give the robots the washdown job?

When confronted with a pick-and-place robotics cell project for a meat processing plant, a team of engineers from JMP Engineering asked the same questions. After all, there is no reason robots can’t clean up after themselves. Their vacuum lines have to be cleaned out anyway. So, why not run cleaning fluid through the lines and, with the right spray nozzles in place, wash down the robots and the work cell as well?

Food Engineering briefly described an invention that allows this kind of cleaning in an article on sanitary equipment design in the April 2014 edition. In these pages, we provide a more in-depth look at the invention, which has a patent in the works.

JMP Engineering, a certified member of the Control Systems Integrators Association (CSIA), has projects in several industries, of which food and beverage is one. Engineers at JMP Engineering have expertise with sanitary design, robotics, controls, sensors and many allied technologies. We asked Brent Bell, engineering manager, to describe the invention’s joint engineering effort in more detail.

FE: How many engineers participated in the development of the robotics cell with washdown capabilities?

Bell: Fifteen team members contributed to the successful delivery of the project, which incorporated our first implementation of automated robotic washdown. They had both lead and support responsibilities for electrical and mechanical design, controls and robot programming, project management and equipment build. My contributions were primarily in the area of mechanical design, beginning with the conceptualization of the cell to satisfy the requirements of a particular vision-guided robotic pick-and-place system. I was able to draw on my experience in designing equipment for the food industry and, in particular, my experience with designing to satisfy hygienic and sanitary requirements.

FE: What robotics cell application did your client specify?

Bell: Our client was looking to automate the loading of bulk frozen food products into a high-speed flow wrapping machine while performing in-process production quality verification based on the shape of the frozen product. The majority of our customers intend to introduce automation as a means of reducing labor costs, but in this case, the goal was to increase production throughput.

FE: Did the client ask for a robotic washdown capability, or was that your idea?

Bell: Automating the washdown process was not included in the initial scope of the project. As we began to create a custom solution, we first identified the opportunity to plumb a CIP system directly to the main artery of the robotic system’s vacuum system, which is used for picking up the frozen products during production. The vacuum lines and hoses needed to be thoroughly cleaned, so our idea was to clean them in place so operators would not need to disassemble any of the vacuum system during the daily cleaning shift. Since all four robots were plumbed to the same vacuum circuit, our next idea was to program the robots to actively clean the inside of the cell and each other, a fully automated washdown cycle. The robotic washdown program led to a highly repeatable cleaning process that involves very little operator effort. It also ensures that critical surfaces are thoroughly cleaned, and sensitive equipment is cleaned in an appropriate manner.

FE: When did you come up with the idea of the robots doing the CIP washdowns?

Bell: This idea truly was an evolution where one idea led to another early in the project’s mechanical design phase. Our customer was on board, and we were excited to develop the final solution that addressed a number of constraints pertaining to the sanitation of equipment, changeover time and suitability of critical components in a harsh washdown environment while following AMI guidelines.

FE: What kind of design effort was involved in getting the robots to wash themselves and the work cell? Had anyone tried this before?

Bell: I’m not aware of another robotics integrator that has successfully commissioned a robot cell where the robots wash themselves and the surrounding equipment. Additional engineering time was required to ensure the equipment could safely withstand the washdown environment while it was powered and moving. This meant detailed investigations of the IP ratings of all components in the cell in relation to the spray zone, chemical compatibility analysis and an iterative process to program the robots to clean the equipment effectively. A six-axis pick-and-place robot, as opposed to a high-speed delta-style robot, was used in part to achieve greater flexibility for washdown.

FE: Were there bumps in the road in while your team was perfecting the CIP washdown process?

Bell: Integration of the CIP system took some coordination during the design of the vacuum system to ensure  the system could seamlessly switch from the washdown cycle to being production ready. The vacuum lines needed to drain all the fluids delivered by the CIP system and handle some residual moisture upon production startup. The controls integration of the CIP system was a home run, with some simple PLC logic to coordinate the functions of the robots and the incoming washdown fluids.

FE: How long did it take you to complete the project?

Bell: The first automated washdown project was unique and required significant development and testing time to deliver a completely production-ready custom solution to our customer. The first robotic pick-and-place system with integrated CIP was implemented within 28 weeks of JMP kicking off the project.

FE: What did you learn by doing this project?

Bell: Through the project, we furthered our knowledge of the AMI guidelines and how to maintain FDA/USDA compliance for food equipment. Merging CIP and robotics technology was a learning experience due to the requirements of the mechanical seals and IP ratings of both static and moving parts. This learning exercise was critical due to the thorough washdown with high-pressure water and caustic chemicals for achieving sanitation.

FE: What’s the status of the patent on the robotic washdown cell?

Bell: JMP has a provisional patent for the process of using robots in a food environment not only for handling the food product, but also washing down themselves and the related equipment.

FE: Are you building similar applications now?

Bell: We are seeing substantial interest in the food industry as the cost of robotic integration decreases and the demand for the sanitary equipment increases. The big players in the industry are looking to improve the consistency and costs of production and sanitation; our robotic pick-and-place system with integrated CIP offers both.

FE: What extra cost is added to the project by automating the washdown process?

Bell: If the facility can use an existing CIP skid, we can integrate CIP washdown in a robotic cell at roughly 15 percent of the base project cost.

FE: Does the JMP system produce verifiable, quantifiable results that will be accepted by auditors and regulators?

Bell: We are open to the same audits as any other CIP cleaning procedure. The technology is highly repeatable, and subsequent audits can be expected to produce the same results as the initial sanitary testing.