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Robotic chef creates recipe for change

Jake Norman of OAL and Mark Swainson of the National Centre for Food Manufacturing at Lincoln University explain how a new robotic chef allows food to be produced more rapidly, efficiently and hygienically with less waste and greater precision.

Robots cannot be considered‘new’, but over the next 5 years they have the potential to significantly change how food is manufactured. To date, UK food manufacturing, whilst arguably the most advanced food sector in the world, has been slow to embrace robotic technologies. UK food businesses currently purchase approximately 60 robots a year [1], predominantly to case and palletise end products. To put this number in perspective, China, often cited for its manufacturing prowess due to‘abundant, cheap labour’, is set to buy 150,000 robots across all sectors in 2018 [2]. The manufacturing‘efficiency and control’ game is changing and the UK sector needs to move fast to catch up. Robots have the potential to deliver better value and safer, more sustainable food. OAL (Olympus Automation) and the University of Lincoln, National Centre for Food Manufacturing, have developed a new a robotic chef known as APRIL (Automated Processing Robotic Ingredient Loading). Demonstrations of APRIL are taking place at the National Centre for Food Manufacturing to allow food manufacturers to evaluate the technology for their own specific production processes. It can be daunting for a manufacturer to start this disruptive change process and the first step is education.

Food manufacturers face rising costs driven by the national living wage and change is needed to deliver long term growth and profitability. As a result, businesses considering the development of a new food factory should consider using robots to play a central role in the manufacturing processes.

To date, UK food manufacturing, whilst arguably the most advanced food sector in the world, has been slow to embrace robotic technologies.’


APRIL cooking with steam

Features of APRIL Robotic Chef

APRIL allows food manufacturers to move a cooking vessel from one processing/ingredient station (heat, mix, etc.) to another on an industrial scale. It is a very simple idea but the freedom to move is very powerful and is not possible in a traditional kettle gantry arrangement. APRIL offers the opportunity to automate both the handling of raw materials and processing at the same time. Simon Lushey, Specialist Food Technical Manager at Marks & Spencer, believes that modular robotics cells may be able to transform food manufacturing kitchens, by breaking up processes in a different way, providing a step change in performance. The trigger for their introduction will be the ability to improve taste, consistency, quality and value of consumer products.

Where can APRIL be applied?

To maximise the benefits of robotics, APRIL is best suited to new build factories. The first APRIL system is due to be operational in Europe within a year, manufacturing ambient sauces. The robotic manufacturing cell is particularly designed for batch cooking applications, which are typically utilised in producing a wide range of‘ambient’, ‘cold-blend’, ‘cook-chill’ and ‘cook-chill-freeze’ products for retail, foodservice and B2B (Business to Business).

The APRIL system can incorporate OAL’s Steam Infusion heating and mixing technology that was researched and developed with the University of Lincoln under a £1 million Innovate UK project. Steam Infusion is widely used across the UK ready meal market, which includes chilled and frozen ready meals, pizza, sauces, soup, condiments and cook-in sauces. By incorporating Steam Infusion into a robotic manufacturing cell, the traditional bottlenecks of ingredient loading and cleaning are removed.

With UK ready meals set to grow by an average of 3.2% annually over the next four years to reach approximately £5.78bn in 2020 [3], there will be demand for increased production capacity. It has been suggested that new product development coupled with new process development is vital for achieving such growth forecasts. APRIL has potential to help manufacturers meet consumers’ growing demand for premium, healthy and natural products.

OAL has modelled a number of applications for APRIL, which will be further developed via research work with specialists in robotics, engineering and food processing systems at the National Centre for Food Manufacturing. The following application areas may be of particular importance.

Product consistency

Traditional soup, sauce and other liquid-based product manufacturing typically utilises large fixed cooking kettles (500 to 3000kg) requiring pumped and manual handling transfer systems for moving ingredients and finished product from one process step to another. This can lead to prolonged manufacturing times, variable product quality, much waste and high energy usage.

APRIL incorporates a semiautonomous system that combines state of the art cooking and materials handling technologies with automated robotic ingredient loading, currently using vessels between 50kg and 750kg. The integrated system has been developed to produce higher quality food with improved flexibility and offers increased process consistency at a faster rate. It has potential to greatly reduce ingredient wastage and energy costs while taking up to 50% less factory space. The system will be further developed and tested in the dedicated ‘Robotics & Automation’ food processing hall at the University of Lincoln’s National Centre for Food Manufacturing.

Parallel processing

Parallel processing is the processing of recipes by dividing them among multiple modules (heat, mix etc.) with the objective of running a recipe in less time.

Traditional cooking systems only run one recipe at a time. A processing operation with an ingredient loading operation taking 30 minutes, a one hour cook and a one hour clean, would take a total of two hours 30 minutes to run. Parallel processing allows the execution of both modules simultaneously. The system would start an ingredient loading operation and while it was waiting for the recipe to complete, it would execute another recipe. The total execution time for the two recipes would be a little over one hour. As the number of processing steps increases, the time-saving increases further. Manufacturers would need less equipment to run at the same capacity.

Flexibility and scalability

The ability of a manufacturer to adapt is key to staying ahead in the food manufacturing sector [4]. A major restriction on many batch food production businesses using traditional cooking processes is the lack of flexibility and scalability in their operations.

To increase capacity or add a new processing technology is costly and time-consuming. Significant downtime is incurred whilst the gantry and pipework are cut and reconfigured to make space for a new device needed to cook the latest soup innovation.

APRIL systems can eliminate gantries and fixed pipework making the addition of new modules easy. A new ‘cook’ module can be designed, manufactured and tested off site before being placed into the robotic cell. The module is then added to the software sequence and hooked up to services with minimal downtime.

Extended shelf life

                                                         APRIL pouring liquid

Processing food using APRIL has the potential to be more hygienic than‘traditional’ methods enhancing food quality and freshness. The lack of human interaction with products and the consistent, predictable and accurate execution of tasks will help reduce 'contamination incidents' and related product recalls (e.g. due to undeclared allergens or accidental addition of foreign bodies to the product due to operator error).

As APRIL can work autonomously, manufacturers can place the system in a sterilised area and/or an optimised atmosphere selected to extend the shelf life of products and reduce food waste.

Lights out manufacturing

At the start of the robotic batch manufacturing process a works order will be fully digitised from its source, which could be a digital works order from an ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) or a paper works order. The digitally formatted works order will then trigger a series of technological scheduling and manufacturing actions. This approach has the benefit of being able to check and optimise the processes required for every unique ‘production occasion’ and ultimately has the potential for‘lights out’ manufacturing (running autonomously with no human interaction).

Such advanced processes will form part of the ‘farm to fork’ supply chain as products physically and digitally cross industry sectors. In short, utilising principles from Industry 4.0, the order will first be simulated, running a vast number of production scenarios before settling on the best option for that specific point in time; ultimately optimising and enabling ‘right-first-time’ manufacturing.

It is envisaged that this manufacturing approach could be linked into suppliers’ systems to develop a ‘just in time’ delivery process as employed in many other manufacturing industries (e.g. automotive and aerospace) [5], thus reducing storage and waste costs.

Safer operating environment

The autonomous APRIL manufacturing platform can also protect operators from the harmful effects of some ingredients and the physical challenges of manual handling, freeing them to do other more productive duties within the factory, thus improving the working environment and health for all involved.

Next steps

Food manufacturers can learn more about APRIL technology at the National Centre for Food Manufacturing, where OAL and the University of Lincoln are committed to:

• Providing education on the opportunities for automation and robotics.

• Partnering with and supporting visionary ‘early adopters’.

• Working to develop and deliver disruptive change in food manufacturing.


Jake Norman of OAL (Olympus Automation) and Mark Swainson of the National Centre for Food Manufacturing, University of Lincoln, Holbeach, Lincolnshire.


Tel: +44 1733 394 700 Web:,

Last year a conference at the National Centre for Food Manufacturing, brought together food industry leaders and technologists to discuss the future of food production. There will be another ‘Food Manufacturing 2030’event in September 2017, register your interest at: 




1. International Robotics Federation World Robotics 2016 Industrial Robots Executive Summary. Available at: http://

2. Wall Street Journal

3. Mintel Prepared Meals Review May 2016

4. McKinsey Manufacturing the future: The next era of global growth and innovation.

5. Toyota:


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