Hygienic practices to design robotic automation solutions

Hygienic design of robotic automation solution helps food companies to eliminate the risk of microbial contamination. In a new four-part series of articles, we zoom in the best hygienic practices to design robotic automation solutions. In this first part we focus on what is hygienic design and why it is important. 

Within the framework of the project ColRobFood, we were interested in the challenges faced by Flemish companies in integrating robots in food production with the hygiene constraints in mind. We noticed that the problem of designing 'food-ready' robotic automation solutions is still open. With these new blog series we will give you a summary of tips and tricks promoted by well-known organisations in hygienic design as EHEDG and 3-A SSI. 

Potential for processing and production

Robots are used on the production site in lots of different industries, but in the food industry are usually deployed only for packing and palletising.
The main factors that have determined a limited use of robotics in food manufacturing until now are two: the cost of robotics technology and the lack of robots designed to manipulate food - i.e., ingredients which are fragile, deformable and which are often in powder or liquid state of matter. While the cost of robots is rapidly decreasing and thanks to the huge leaps forward that have been made in gripper technology and intelligent image processing, there is now huge potential for the use of robots in the processing and production of food. But these are non-traditional robot applications. One issue is the challenge in meeting regulations around food hygiene and easy cleaning of robots.

Machinery directive

Do you know that for food processing machines that do not meet the 'easy to clean' requirements of the Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC and other relevant standards, conformity to the CE mark is not valid ? Protocols set by the Machine Directive require complete sanitisation of any surface that comes in direct contact with the food. However the question of designing 'food-ready' robotic automation solutions is still open.

The task of the food processing industry is to take crops or farm animal products and use them to produce all kinds of foodstuffs. Speaking of food manufacturing, we have to make a distinction between primary processing, secondary processing and packaging (see figure). The transfer of bacteria or other microorganisms from one substance to another can happen during any stage of food production. 

Primary processing, secondary processing, packaging

As a result of the development and application of increasingly mild preservation technologies, processed foods become more sensitive to microbial (re)contamination, requiring greater control of the manufacturing process. One way to achieve this added control is to 'build in' hygiene into the equipment used in the food manufacturing facility from the start (see figures below). Especially in secondary processing, where food comes in direct contact with equipment, it’s essential to have machines that are designed and constructed to ensure that, where necessary, they can be adequately cleaned, disinfected and maintained to avoid the contamination of food. It must be possible to hose down or wash these machines with water, so they have to be resistant to corrosion and damage to their working parts that water might cause.

Components of controlling pathogens

Relation between equipment quality and product quality

Hygienic design

Hygienic design is not a very new concept; in fact, it’s been around for almost a century when the dairy industry realised standardisation was helpful with different parts. The standardisation of regulations across the world is an ongoing process but organisations such 3-A Sanitary Standards Inc. (3-A SSI) in the United States and the European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group (EHEDG) are collaborating in defining standards of hygienic design for food equipment.

In our research we discover that 3-A SSI released in 2016 the 3-A Sanitary Standard for Robot-based Automation Systems. This is the first industry standard for the minimum sanitary (hygienic) requirements for design, materials, and fabrication/installation of robot-based automation systems. EHEDG has not yet edited an equivalent standard. The standard reflects nearly five years of work to develop criteria for robots employed in the food processing environment that allow robots to be cleanable and not a source of food contamination. We will come back on tip & tricks described in this standard in the next parts of the blog series.

Want to know more? Stay informed!

When implementing and qualifying a robotic palletizer project, the expectation is low that the safety of edible product will be compromised. However, projects that involve the design and implementation of systems wherein picking, dosing, filling, sealing, etc. involves a comestible and its contact packaging, design criteria must be based on an assumption that various hazards will compromise product quality if not anticipated, identified, discussed, documented, mitigated or eliminated. The team of Sirris experts can support you. So be sure to keep an eye on this series of articles. Any questions? Please contact us!

Part 2 of our blog series will address the risk and hazard analysis process as a first step to take when you consider to introduce a robot in contact with food.