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Food sector to get £2M boost for robotics research

By Rick Pendrous , 20-Dec-2012
Last updated the 20-Dec-2012 at 12:30 GMT

UK food and drink manufacturing is set to benefit from a new competition, which is putting up £2M of government funding to promote automation research in the sector.

The money forms part of a £8M collaborative research and development (R&D) competition called ‘Enhancing manufacturing through automation’. Intended to develop, enhance or improve automation systems and equipment, the project is funded by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

£8M available

The areas of R&D eligible within the competition are likely to cover systems integration, design for automation, usability, materials handling methods and equipment, data handling and sensing. Projects should last from one to three years, with total project costs in the range of £500,000 to £2M, although projects outside this range will be considered.

The £8M available in total includes up to £1M of additional funding from the EPSRC for projects that contain a significant, high-quality academic research component and demonstrate added value by building on or being complementary to existing research programmes and work.

Proposals must be collaborative and business-led and include a potential end-user. The TSB expects to fund mainly industrial research projects in which a business partner will generally attract up to 50% public funding for their project costs (60% for small- and medium-sized enterprises).

Barriers to automation

The TSB recognises there are a number of barriers to UK industry reaping the benefits of greater automation. These include challenges with systems integration and data capture; the problem of accommodating automation within product development lifecycles; a lack of automation skills, and a lack of awareness of what automation can do within UK manufacturing.

It expects to fund mainly industrial research projects that develop new technology for automating manual operations, or enhance and improve existing automation technologies in order to expand the use of these systems and increase the benefits derived from them.

Handling ‘difficult’ materials

Of particular interest to the UK’s food industry will be the TSB’s focus on projects that raise levels of automation in materials handling methods and equipment.

The TSB has specifically expressed interest in funding research into equipment and processes for enabling automated handling of ‘difficult’ materials, such as sticky surfaces, irregular or non-uniform shapes, flexible materials or the production of products with contamination or hygiene challenges. Historically, these issues have proved to be a particular barrier to food companies adopting high levels of automation.

Projects may include mechatronics research or situational analysis to determine the required behaviour of grippers and other end effector tools.

The competition opens on January 21 and expressions of interest must be submitted by noon on March 6. A briefing event about the competition will be held in London on January 24. The TSB has produced a document explaining how to enter the competition  in more detail.

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