Login| Sign Up| Help| Contact|

Patent Searching and Data


Title:
A FOOD MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
Document Type and Number:
WIPO Patent Application WO/2020/120566
Kind Code:
A1
Abstract:
This disclosure relates to a food management system and a method for automatically transferring food pieces, resulting form larger food objects, to processing devices, the system comprising: a buffer device, a control device, a drive system operated by the control device for moving the mobile buffer device.

Inventors:
ERLINGSSON VIDAR (IS)
Application Number:
PCT/EP2019/084628
Publication Date:
June 18, 2020
Filing Date:
December 11, 2019
Export Citation:
Click for automatic bibliography generation   Help
Assignee:
MAREL ICELAND EHF (IS)
International Classes:
A22C18/00; B65G1/06; B65G1/12; B65G1/127; B65G1/133
Domestic Patent References:
WO2019226470A12019-11-28
Foreign References:
EP3354599A12018-08-01
US20170291766A12017-10-12
US4492504A1985-01-08
DE102016010686A12018-03-08
Attorney, Agent or Firm:
INSPICOS P/S (DK)
Download PDF:
Claims:
CLAIMS

1. A food management system for a processing line comprising a plurality of processing devices, the food management system configured for automatically transferring food pieces to at least one selectable one of the processing devices, the system comprising:

- at least one mobile buffer device comprising a frame and a plurality of food piece holders movably attached to the frame for receiving individual food pieces and holding them,

- a drive system arranged to move the plurality of food piece holders of the at least one mobile buffer device in accordance with instruction data defining a sequence of the processing devices in the processing line,

- the drive system further being arranged to move the entire at least one mobile buffer device from an outfeed area of one processing device to an infeed position of another processing device in accordance with the instruction data.

2. The food management system according to any of the preceding claims, wherein the drive system is configured to define the instruction data based on product data related to a food piece.

3. The food management system according to claim 2, wherein the drive system is configured to receive the product data from at least one of the processing devices or from one of the mobile buffer devices.

4. The food management system according to any of the preceding claims, wherein the drive system is configured to redefine the instruction data based on new product data related to a food piece.

5. The food management system according to claim 4, wherein the drive system is configured to receive the new product data from at least one of the processing devices or from one of the mobile buffer devices.

6. The food management system according to claim 4 or 5, wherein the drive system is configured to receive the new product data each time a food piece is delivered from one of the mobile buffer devices to one of the processing devices.

7. The food management system according to claim 4-6, wherein the drive system is configured to receive the new product data each time a food piece is received by one of the mobile buffer devices from one of the processing devices.

8. The food management system according to any of claims 2-7, wherein at least one of the processing devices comprises a detection mechanism for determining at least one

characteristic property of an individual food piece, the characteristic property defining the new product data.

9. The food management system according to any of claims 2-8, wherein at least one of the mobile buffer devices comprises a detection mechanism for determining at least one characteristic property of an individual food piece, the characteristic property defining the new product data.

10. The food management system according to any of the preceding claims, comprising a plurality of mobile buffer devices, and wherein a first one of the plurality of mobile buffer devices is configured to deliver a food piece at a first processing device, and a second one of the plurality of mobile buffer devices is configured to collect the food piece at the first processing device.

11. The food management system according to any of the preceding claims, wherein at least one of the processing devices is configured to process the food pieces in a continuous stream of food pieces, and wherein the mobile buffer device forms a buffer in the continuous stream of food pieces.

12. The food management system according to claim 11, wherein the continuous stream of food pieces in at least one processing device is conveyed on a conveyor device connecting the infeed position and the outfeed area of the processing device.

13. The food management system according to any of the preceding claims, wherein the instruction data comprises a selection data set indicating a selection of a receiving food piece holder where a food piece is to be received by the mobile buffer device.

14. The food management system according to any of the preceding claims, further comprising a load balance module configured to determine a load required by the food pieces held on the plurality of food piece holders of the mobile buffer device and to compare the required load with a current capacity of the processing devices defined by the instruction data, and wherein the mobile buffer devices is assigned to a storage if the current capacity is lower than the required load.

15. The food management system according to claim 14, wherein the load balance module is configured re-evaluate the current capacity of the processing devices related to food pieces in the mobile buffer device assigned to storage and to return the mobile buffer device if the current capacity is higher than the required capacity.

16. The food management system according to claim 15, wherein the load balance module is configured to evaluate a storage duration for each mobile buffer device assigned to storage and to return the mobile buffer device with the highest storage duration.

17. The food management system according to any of the preceding claims, wherein the selectable processing devices are selected from the group of:

- a deboning device,

- a cooling device,

- a surface inspection device,

- an inspection device,

- a robot loading device,

- a weighing device,

- an injection device,

- a food piece coating device,

- a cleaning device,

- a batching device, - a portion cutter device, and

- a charging device.

18. The food management system according to any of the preceding claims, wherein the food pieces are derived from larger food objects by dividing the larger food objects into smaller pieces defining the food pieces, and where the food pieces are conveyed by at least one conveyor device each having a free infeed end, and where the individual food pieces are received by the at least one buffer mobile device at the least one free infeed end of the at least one conveyor device.

19. The food management system according to claim 18, wherein the at least one conveyor device comprise two or more processing devices, one of the processing devices conveys food pieces of a first type of, and where at least one of the remaining processing devices convey food pieces of at least one second type.

20. A method for processing food pieces in a processing line comprising plurality of processing device by automatically transferring food pieces to at least one selectable one of the processing devices,

the method comprising the steps of:

- providing at least one mobile buffer device comprising a frame and a plurality of food piece holders movably attached to the frame for receiving individual food pieces and holding them,

- moving, by a drive system, the plurality of food piece holders of the of the at least one mobile buffer device in accordance with instruction data defining a sequence of the processing devices in the processing line,

- wherein the method further comprising further moving, by the drive system, the entire mobile buffer device from an outfeed area of one processing device to an infeed position of another processing device in accordance with the instruction data.

21. The method of claim 20, further comprising defining a set of processing instructions including a sequence of processing steps for processing of the food piece, and defining the instruction data based on the processing instructions.

22. The method according to claim 21, further comprising receiving product data from at least one of the processing devices or from one of the mobile buffer devices, and redefining the set of processing instructions based on the product data if the product data is within a pre-defmed threshold window and/or above or below a pre-defmed threshold value.

23. The method according to claim 22, wherein the product data is defined by use of a detection mechanism for detecting a characteristic property of the food pieces.

Description:
A FOOD MANAGEMENT SYSTEM

INTRODUCTION

The present disclosure relates to a food management system for automatically receiving food objects from at least one receiving area and automatically transferring the received food objects to selectable processing devices.

BACKGROUND

Food processing factories today, such as those within the poultry industry, produce different type of items from whole carcasses, e.g. from chicken drum sticks, wings and fillets. After undergoing the whole process, e.g. from slaughtering until these items have been removed from the carcass, at the end of the processing line, the items commonly undergo different further processing steps which may be according to specific and different customer orders.

An example of such further processing steps is where chicken breasts are run through an X-ray inspection device to check if there are any bones or other undesired fragments present therein. Depending on the characteristics of the chicken breasts, e.g. their shape and/or size and/or weight, they may optionally undergo different subsequent (further) processing steps. This may include packing the chicken breasts directly into a tray if no bones or other fragments are found and if the chicken breasts are above a pre-defmed target weight, whereas the chicken breasts may undergo e.g. marination or chopping into smaller pieces if certain criteria are not met, e.g. if the weight is below a target weight and/or if the size or shape is not within a pre-defmed criteria.

Other examples of food processing are in fish factories where e.g. a whole fish is received at an“in-feed” end of a factory, the fish is processed in various steps, e.g. de heading, de-fining, de-skinning or de-boning, resulting in various products, e.g. loin items or tail items. These different items undergo different further processing steps, e.g. they are conveyed to different packing areas depending on the product types, and/or they may undergo one or more subsequent processing steps, before being packed, e.g. trimming to meet a target weight, filleting or slicing.

Such food processing factories that deliver“sorted out” products i.e. a large number of different products from one type of carcass, often require an enormous space due to different take-away conveyor systems to deliver the products to different destinations, e.g. marinate destination(s), different packing destinations, temporary storage locations such as freezers (e.g. due to overload i.e. a temporary overproduction of items).

Such take-away conveyor systems can add complexity and cost to a factory processing line, in particular when a large number of potential processed item types has to be accounted for in the take-away conveyor system arrangement.

Also, the cleaning process for cleaning such take-away conveyor systems can be extremely tedious and time demanding, adding further cost.

Moreover, in most cases such food processing factories require manual labour to complete the above mentioned examples of further processing steps, and to ensure a proper cleaning of the take-away conveyor systems.

SUMMARY

On the above background it is an object of embodiments of the present disclosure to overcome the above mentioned drawbacks by fully automating the subsequent processing steps of food objects until the different food objects have reached their final destination areas, e.g. packing areas.

Embodiments preferably seek to mitigate, alleviate or eliminate one or more of the above mentioned disadvantages singly or in any combination.

In particular, it may be seen as an object of embodiments of the present disclosure to provide a food management system that solves the above mentioned problems, or other problems, of the prior art.

To address one or more of these concerns, in a first aspect, the disclosure provides a food management system for a processing line comprising a plurality of processing devices. The food management system is configured for automatically transferring food pieces to at least one selectable one of the processing devices. The system comprises:

- at least one mobile buffer device comprising a frame and a plurality of food piece holders movably attached to the frame. The food piece holders may e.g. be moveable along a closed loop path, for receiving individual food pieces and holding them,

- a drive system arranged to move the plurality of food piece holders of the at least one mobile buffer device in accordance with instruction data defining a sequence of the processing devices in the processing line at which at least some of the plurality of food pieces are to be processed,

- the drive system further being arranged to move the entire at least one mobile buffer device from an outfeed area of one processing device to an infeed position of another processing device in accordance with the instruction data.

A sequence may particularly be an order in which the food pieces, after having been processed at one processing device, are moved to another processing device. The sequence thereby defines connections between the outfeed area of a delivering processing device and the infeed position of a receiving processing device.

The instruction data may, as an example, define that a food piece is to be inspected for undesired objects, be cut into smaller pieces, marinated, and packed. The instruction data thereby defines the sequence of processing devices matching the desired treatment of the food piece.

The drive system may receive the instruction data, e.g. from an external planning system, e.g. from an external client that places orders of processed food pieces (e.g. 500kg marinated chicken fillet, 100kg of fresh chicken fillets, 400kg drumsticks etc..). In one embodiment, the drive system comprises a computer assembly configured to define the instruction data based on product data related to a food piece.

In one embodiment, the computer assembly has a knowledge base specifying that food pieces with specific characteristics must be treated in a specific way, and the instruction data can therefore be defined automatically based on these characteristics. The product data may therefore specifically define such characteristics, examples of which are weight, colour, density, fat or water content, or content of other substances in the food pieces.

The drive system may be configured to receive the product data from at least one of the processing devices or from one of the mobile buffer devices. By means of an example, one, or all of the processing devices, and/or the mobile buffer devises may include sensors, cameras, scales and any similar means configured to obtain characteristic features of the food pieces. Based on these product data, the drive system may define the instruction data. As an example, one processing device may weigh the food piece, and based on the weight, the drive system may determine that the food piece must be cut into smaller pieces. In this example, the instruction data determines the cutting and thereby specifies the subsequent processing device being a cutting device. Based on these instruction data, a mobile buffer device is controlled to pick up the food piece and move it to a cutting device as the next processing device in the sequence.

The drive system may particularly be configured to redefine the instruction data based on new product data related to a food piece. I.e. every time a process is carried out on a food piece, the product data may change and that change may trigger regeneration of the instruction data.

The drive system may e.g. be configured to receive the new product data from at least one of the processing devices or from one of the mobile buffer devices.

By means of an example, the weight may trigger that the instruction data defines “cutting into smaller pieces” as the next process. Once the food piece is cut into smaller pieces, the previous process, i.e. in this example the cutting, may reveal a previously unknown characteristic property, e.g. a high fat content or undesired fragments of cartilage etc. This, new product data may trigger a need to change the instruction data. Accordingly, a vision camera or a manual worker input at the cutting device may define product data which redefines the instruction data and based thereon, the drives system may redirect the food pieces, in this case by directing the food piece to a processing device for removal of undesired fragments or fat.

The drive system may be configured to receive the new product data each time a food piece is delivered from one of the mobile buffer devices to one of the processing devices or to receive the new product data each time a food piece is received by one of the mobile buffer devices from one of the processing devices.

At least one of the processing devices may comprise a detection mechanism for determining at least one characteristic property of an individual food piece and based on the detected characteristic property, the product data may be defined. As mentioned above, the detection mechanism could be different kinds of sensors, scales, cameras, or x-ray devices etc.

Additionally, or alternatively, at least one of the mobile buffer devices may comprise a detection mechanism for determining at least one characteristic property of an individual food piece and the characteristic property could constitute the product data or the product data could be defined based on the detected characteristic property. As mentioned above, the detection mechanism could be different kinds of sensors, scales, cameras, or x-ray devices etc. In one example, each food piece holder may include a scale for determining the weigh of a food piece on the holder, or a camera may be assigned to each food piece holder to capture a picture, e.g. a 3D picture of the food piece on the holder.

The food management system may comprise a plurality of mobile buffer devices, and they may interact with the product devices to share the task of bringing a food piece through the processing line. A first one of the plurality of mobile buffer devices may be configured to deliver a food piece at a first processing device, and a second one of the plurality of mobile buffer devices may be configured to collect the food piece at the first processing device. In broader terms, the plurality of mobile buffer devices may interact with each other so that several mobile buffer devices are involved in bringing one single food piece through the intended sequence of processing devices.

The system may further comprise a processing line e.g. with a conveyor device. The processing line may be configured to process the food pieces in a continuous stream of food pieces. Herein, that means that the food pieces may be conveyed one by one e.g. on a conveyor belt. The conveyor belt does not necessarily move continuously, it could move in discrete steps or continuously. In this continuous stream of food pieces, the selectable processing devices may form part of the processing line, and the processing line may comprise a plurality of such selectable processing devices. The drive system may be configured to control the mobile buffer to form a buffer in the continuous stream of food pieces. A continuous stream means that the food pieces are moved between processes one by one, e.g. by a conveyor system which either continuously or intermittently move the food pieces. Movement one by one between the processes is contrary to being grouped in a batch which is moved between processes. While the processing line may move the food pieces in a continuous stream, the mobile buffer device forms an intermediate batch or storage buffer in that stream of food pieces, and it can be used to form different routes and combinations between different processes in a processing line which is configured for processing the food pieces in consecutive processes along a conveyor.

The processing line may comprise at least two processing devices, and each of them may form a conveyor section of the conveyor device. At least one of the sections, e.g. each section, may comprise a selectable processing device, and the conveyor sections may each define an outfeed area and an infeed position. The processing line may be configured to process the food pieces consecutively from the outfeed area of one processing device to the infeed position of another processing device. The consecutive processing means that the food pieces are processed in a sequence, e.g. an uninterrupted sequence.

The drive system may be arranged to move the entire mobile buffer device to a first location being at an outfeed area of one processing device and to a second location being at an infeed position of another processing device.

The instruction date may comprise a first location data and a second location data. The first location data may indicate a selection of a receiving position where individual food pieces are to be received by the mobile buffer device, and the second location data may indicate a selection of a delivery position where the held food pieces are to be delivered by the mobile buffer device.

The instruction date may also comprise a selection data set indicating a selection of a receiving food piece holder where a food piece is to be received by the mobile buffer device.

The selection data set may be correlated with the first location data and the second location data to indicate a selection of specific food piece holder to be at a position where a food piece is to be received and delivered by the mobile buffer device, i.e. the correlated data set contains information both related to the position of the food piece holder and the location of the entire mobile buffer device.

In one embodiment, the receiving position is one chosen from the group consisting of:

- an outfeed area of a conveyor device,

- an infeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing device,

- an outfeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing device.

In one embodiment, the delivery position is one chosen from the group consisting of:

- an infeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing devices,

- an outfeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing devices, wherein the receiving position is not the same as the delivery position.

Accordingly, a fully automated food management system is provided where complex and space demanding conveyor systems are no longer needed, which in addition to facilitate the cleaning of the system, reduces the floor space of the system.

The food objects may, as an example be, but is not limited to, whole chickens where the food pieces are e.g. legs, wings, breasts, or whole fish where the food pieces are individual pieces such as loin pieces, tail parts etc., or carcasses where the food pieces are different red meat parts.

The delivery of the food pieces from the mobile buffer device, at the infeed position, may be done in a way that a food piece is placed at a certain position adjacent to the infeed position and is carefully placed, e.g. by letting the food piece slide, into the selected first food processing device. Other means may of course be provided to remove the individual food piece into the selected first food processing device, e.g. a pusher may be provided that smoothly pushes the individual food piece into the infeed of the selected first food processing device. The food piece holders may, in one embodiment, rotate about a horizontal axis, so as to make the mobile buffer device more compact, but a rotation around a vertical axis may just as well be possible. In either case, using a closed loop, i.e. endless belt/chain setup, to movably attach the holders to the frame of the mobile buffer is preferable.

The food pieces may be derived from larger food objects by dividing the larger food objects.

The food management system may have a plurality of mobile buffer devices operable simultaneously. In this case, the control system tracks mobile buffer locations to avoid crashes or interference between two such mobile buffer devices. Further, two mobile buffer devices may serve the same processing device in cooperation. In one example, one mobile buffer device may be charging while the other one is discharging etc.

In one embodiment, the plurality of food piece holders may be operably connected to a tracking module where a position of each individual food piece within the mobile buffer device is tracked and the information stored in the tracking device. The tracking module may be a part of a control device of the drive system, or be a separate part. Alternatively, the tracking module may be part of a central process control device located outside the food management system, e.g. a central computing system of the food factory in which the food management system is used. Thus, a full track control is provided for the food pieces when e.g. delivering a given food piece to a selected processing device. Moreover, this allows holding food pieces until e.g. a selected processing device is selected, or available. In one example, a selected processing device is temporarily unavailable or busy. This may necessitate a temporary postponement of processing until the processing device is again available. In one embodiment, a position data may be provided to the drive system for indicating an infeed position of a first selectable processing device and the food pieces held on the food piece holders of the mobile buffer device may be associated with another position data indicating e.g. an outfeed position of the first selectable processing device and yet another position data indicating an infeed position of a second selectable processing device. It is thus possible to automatically perform sequential processing steps that may be interlinked together, e.g. a first processing step may comprise performing automatic trimming of the food piece, where a subsequent processing step may comprise marinating the food piece. The number of processing steps could of course include more than two processing steps.

The term processing step may according to the present disclosure be understood as a process where e.g. a part, e.g. an undesired object of the food piece is cut away, e.g.

automatically. It may also be understood as a flavouring process, a marinating process, a cutting process where the food piece is cut into smaller pieces, an inspection process where e.g. an X-ray image or a picture, e.g. a 3D picture, is taken of the food piece, a freezing process where the food piece is placed into a freezer or a cooling unit etc.

The first selectable processing device may comprise a detection mechanism for determining at least one characteristic property of an individual food piece, where based on the detected characteristic property, a subsequent processing step or sequence of processing steps for the individual food piece is determined, where this sequence may e.g. comprise position data indicating the in-feed position into the processing device and pick up location(s) (out feed area of the processing devices) where the food piece is to be picked ups. An example is where the first selectable processing device is an imaging inspection apparatus, e.g. an X-ray apparatus or any type of vision apparatus, where e.g. based on the detected characteristics which may e.g. be the weight and/or the shape of the food piece, a subsequent processing step is decided. If e.g. the weight is below a given reference value, it may be decided to send the food piece to a marinating device which would then be the second selectable processing device, whereas if the weight is above this reference value, it may be sent to a packing device which would then be the second selectable processing device where it is packed as a fresh food piece. Accordingly, such a dynamic decision determination facilitates the logistics for subsequent food processing steps greatly. It could, as an example, be in accordance with requirements from customers. In an embodiment, the drive system comprises a wireless transceiver to communicate with the control device, where the wireless transceiver receives the instruction data and communicates the instruction data to the control device. The instruction data may be received from a central process control device located outside the food management system, e.g. a central computing system of the food factory in which the food management system is used, or it may be received from a data input terminal adjacent the food management system, or it may be received from another suitable source such as a portable tablet for process parameter input etc. In this way, the communication of the instruction data, e.g. the infeed and pickup locations data, may be communicated at any instance of time and that enhances the flexibility of the system.

In an embodiment, the drive system comprises a re-charger operably connected to a power meter for measuring a state-of-charge of a battery used to power the drive system, where the control device is further configured to automatically instruct the drive system to move the mobile buffer device to and electrically engage with a charging device when the power meter indicates the state-of-charge is below a pre-defmed power level, to charge the battery. It is thus prevented that a buffer device suddenly is without a charge and is stopped during the food processing steps. Preferably, if a given buffer device needs to be re-charged and is thus non operational for some time, this may be communicated with the remaining buffer devices that may react accordingly and e.g. automatically update their route to the different processing devices.

In an embodiment, the drive system of the mobile buffer devices may automatically be instructed by the control device to move the mobile buffer device to a cleaning device, where the mobile buffer device will be automatically cleaned, for example by cleaning liquid spray or similar. The visit to the cleaning device may be combined with the visit to the charging device to minimize long distance travel for the mobile buffer device.

In an embodiment, the receiving area, where individual food pieces are to be received by the at least one mobile buffer device, cooperates with out-feed areas of two or more conveyor devices and where the type of the food pieces at the two or more conveyor devices is different. As an example, one receiving area could be chicken legs, another receiving area could be chicken wings, and the third receiving area could be chick breasts. The same applies in case the food objects are e.g. fish, where one receiving area could have loin parts, another receiving area could be tail parts etc. Thus, the at least one mobile buffer device is capable of accumulating such different types of food pieces where the data defining the type of each food piece is associated to each respective food piece, meaning that e.g. the mobile buffer device has information determining the processing device where certain types of food pieces are to be received. As an example, chicken breasts are to be inspected in an X-ray apparatus, whereas e.g. wings or legs are to be inspected via a surface inspection device.

In an embodiment, the food management system further has a load balance module configured to monitor and compare a load which is expected to be caused by the food pieces held on the plurality of food piece holders of the mobile buffer device with the current capacity of the selectable processing devices. If the current capacity is lower than the expected load of the held food pieces, the mobile buffer device or at least some of the food pieces of the mobile buffer device is assigned to a temporary storage section, e.g. in a refrigerator. This function may be used, e.g. if a processing device is temporarily out of order, or if a processing device is overloaded. The system may be configured to automatically send a notification to the control unit with information concerning the food pieces being temporarily stored until sufficient capacity in the processing device is available. In such cases, the mobile buffer device might automatically be instructed to go to a cooling device until the processing device is available. Another scenario may simply be where one or more processing devices may not be able to comply with the processing load from the mobile buffer device(s).

The load balance module may be configured to evaluate a storage duration for each mobile buffer device assigned to storage and to return the mobile buffer device with the highest storage duration. Accordingly, if more than one mobile buffer device is assigned to storage, the one being stored for the longest time could be reinserted into the processing firstly.

In an embodiment, the selectable processing devices are selected from the group consisting of, but is not limited to these devices:

- a deboning device,

- a cooling device,

- a surface inspection device,

- an inspection device,

- a robot loading device,

- a weighing device,

- an injection device, - a food piece coating device,

- a cleaning device,

- a batching device,

- a portion cutter device, and

- a charging device.

According to a second aspect, a method is provided for automatically transferring food pieces to at least one selectable processing device and using a food management system of the kind pertaining to the first aspect.

The method comprises the steps of:

a) providing at least one mobile buffer device comprising a frame and a plurality of food piece holders movably attached to the frame for receiving individual food pieces and holding them,

b) moving, by a drive system, the plurality of food piece holders of the of the at least one mobile buffer device in accordance with instruction data defining a sequence of the processing devices in the processing line, c) wherein the method further comprising further moving, by the drive system, the entire mobile buffer device from an outfeed area of one processing device to an infeed position of another processing device in accordance with the instruction data.

At least one of the receiving and delivering processing devices may define a conveyor section of a conveyor device carrying a plurality of food pieces for processing of the food pieces in a continuous stream of food pieces, which herein means that the food pieces are conveyed one by one on a conveyor belt. As mentioned previously, the conveyor belt does not necessarily move continuously, it could move in discrete steps or continuously.

The mobile buffer device may be moved in accordance with a traveling path defined by the instruction data from the location were a food piece is received to the location where the food piece is delivered.

The mobile buffer device may be moved in accordance with instructions in the instruction data from a position of the food piece holder were the food piece is received on the food piece holder at the delivering processing device to a position of the food piece holder where the food piece is delivered from the food piece holder at the receiving processing device.

A set of processing instructions including a sequence of processing steps for processing of the food piece may be defined. The processing steps may e.g. include that the food piece should be trimmed, marinated, and packed. Based on the processing instructions, the instruction data may be defined. I.e. when the processing steps for a food piece is defined, those steps may define the locations of the mobile buffering device and the positions of the food piece holders.

The processing instructions may be defined such that if two or more food pieces are to be received by the mobile buffer device from the same delivering processing device, the food piece holders are moved along a closed loop path for presenting an empty space on one of the food piece holders for receiving from the delivering processing device the two or more food pieces on the same or on different food piece holders. This may include more than two food pieces, and may reduce movement and time of moving the mobile buffer between different locations.

By way of an example, processing instructions may define four subsequent processes which are to be carried out on three different food pieces, and two subsequent processes to be carried out on two other food pieces. All five food pieces may derive from the same delivering processing device. This delivering processing device may e.g. include an inspection device by which the three first mentioned food pieces are categorised as“too big” and with“unwanted fragments”, accordingly, the two first of the four subsequent processes are where the three first mentioned food pieces are cut into smaller pieces, and where the unwanted fragments are removed. Subsequently the food pieces are to be forwarded to weighing and packing, therefore in total four different processes for these first mentioned three food pieces.

The two last mentioned food pieces are categorised“ok to be packed”, and they are forwarded to the last mentioned two processes.

Based on the processing instructions, the instruction data is generated to guide the mobile buffering device between the different processing devices in accordance with the processing instructions and to move the food piece holders in accordance with the processing instructions. Firstly, the mobile buffering device is guided to the delivering processing device. At the delivering processing device, the all five food pieces are transferred to the mobile buffering device. Each piece of food is received on individual food piece holders, and therefore, the position of the food piece holders is changed each time a food piece is received. Once all five food pieces are received, the mobile buffer device moves to a receiving processing device. In this case, the first receiving processing device is section where the three first mentioned food pieces are delivered for being cut into smaller pieces.

Subsequently, the mobile buffer device continues to a second receiving processing device where the two last mentioned food pieces are delivered. The second receiving processing device is a weighing section.

Subsequently, the mobile buffer device continues to the previous processing device where the first mentioned three food pieces are cut into smaller pieces. This processing device is now a delivering processing device where the smaller pieces of the first mentioned three food pieces are received in different food piece holders of the mobile buffer device. The mobile buffer device delivers the smaller pieces at a processing segment where fragments are to be removed. This processing segment is now a receiving processing segment.

In this manner, the mobile buffer device continues to serve all processing segments with food pieces in accordance with the processing instructions for the food pieces. As demonstrated above, this includes that the entire buffering device is guided along a traveling path defined by the instruction data from the delivering processing device to the receiving processing device based on the processing instructions. It also includes and that the food piece holders are moved along the closed loop path of the mobile buffering device in accordance with the instruction data to deliver at least one of the individual food pieces held by the mobile buffer device to an infeed position of the receiving processing device.

In one embodiment, the method further comprises a pre-treatment step, performed before step a), involves deriving the food pieces from larger food objects by dividing the larger food objects into smaller pieces defining the food pieces, and where the food pieces are conveyed by at least one conveyor device each having a free infeed end, and where the individual food pieces are received by the at least one buffer mobile device at the least one free infeed end of the at least one conveyor device.

In one embodiment, the method further comprises choosing the receiving position from the group consisting of:

- an outfeed area of a conveyor device, - an infeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing devices,

- an outfeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing devices.

In one embodiment, the method further comprises choosing the delivery position from the group consisting of:

- an infeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing devices,

- an outfeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing devices, wherein the receiving position is not the same as the delivery position.

In one embodiment, the method further comprises operating a plurality of mobile buffer devices simultaneously.

In one embodiment, the method further comprises:

- tracking a position of each individual food piece within the mobile buffer device,

- storing the information in the tracking device, and

- using the stored position information to selectively retrieve a particular individual food piece from the mobile buffer device.

In one embodiment, the method further comprises the steps of:

f) moving the mobile buffer device to an outfeed of the first selectable processing device, g) processing the food pieces in the selectable first processing device,

h) receiving individual food pieces onto at least one food piece holder of the mobile buffer device from the outfeed of the first selectable processing device, and

i) moving the mobile buffer device to an infeed of a second selectable processing device, and j) delivering at least one of the individual food pieces held by the mobile buffer device to the infeed of the second selectable processing device.

In one embodiment, the method further comprises:

- determining at least one characteristic property of an individual food piece in the first selectable processing device using a detection mechanism,

- determining, based on the detected characteristic property, a subsequent processing step for the individual food piece to be performed by the second selectable processing device.

In one embodiment, the method further comprises:

- receiving the instruction data using a wireless transceiver and

- communicating the instruction data to the control device of the drive system.

In one embodiment, the method further comprises: - measuring a state-of-charge of a battery used to power the drive system using a re-charger operably connected to a power meter,

- moving the mobile buffer device to a charging device when the power meter indicates the state-of-charge is below a pre-defmed power level, and

- electrically engaging the battery with the charging device to charge the battery.

In one embodiment, step b) of the method further comprises:

- cooperating, during feeding of the mobile buffer device, with out-feed areas of two or more conveyor devices and where the type of the food pieces at the two or more conveyor devices is different.

In one embodiment, the method further comprises:

- balancing the load of the mobile buffer device with the current capacity of the selectable processing devices using a load balance module configured to monitor and compare a load of the food pieces held on the plurality of food piece holders of the mobile buffer device with the current capacity of the selectable processing devices,

- in case the current capacity is lower than the load of the held food pieces by a pre-set margin, moving the mobile buffer device to a temporary storage section separate from the mobile buffer device and

- moving the non-processable food pieces into the temporary storage section from the mobile buffer device.

In one embodiment, the method further comprises selecting the selectable processing devices from the group consisting of, but is not limited to these devices:

- a deboning device,

- a cooling device,

- a surface inspection device,

- an inspection device,

- a robot loading device,

- a weighing device,

- an injection device,

- a food piece coating device,

- a cleaning device,

- a batching device,

- a portion cutter device, and a charging device.

In general the various aspects of the disclosure may be combined and coupled in any way possible within the scope of the disclosure. These and other aspects, features and/or advantages of the disclosure will be apparent from and elucidated with reference to the embodiments described hereinafter.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE DRAWINGS

Embodiments will be described, by way of example only, with reference to the drawings, in which

Figure l is a schematic elevated perspective view of a mobile buffer device according to an embodiment,

Figure 2 is a schematic perspective end view of a mobile buffer device according to an embodiment,

Figure 3 is a schematic perspective side view of a mobile buffer device according to an embodiment,

Figures 4a to 4c are a schematic side views showing a food piece holder according to an embodiment,

Figure 5 is a schematic plan view showing a food management system according to an embodiment, and

Figure 6 is a schematic plan view showing a food management system according to a further embodiment.

DESCRIPTION OF EMBODIMENTS

Figs. 1 to 3 show a mobile buffer device 10 according to an embodiment. The mobile buffer device has a frame 15 with a base 20. The frame supports a plurality of food piece holders 25 which are movably attached to the frame so that the food piece holders are moveable along a closed loop path. Thus, an individual food piece holder is movable along the closed loop path from a starting position to an end position. If the holder completes the loop, the end position is equal to the starting position. Each holder may receive individual food pieces to hold them during movement along the closed loop path. An individual food piece holder 25 may be a shelf-type construction, a tray-like structure with side walls or a clamp construction which actively holds food pieces until the pieces are to be released. The surface of a holder may be a wire mesh, solid material or an elastic material.

The mobile buffer device shown in Figs. 1 to 3 may of the type First In - First Out, or if the direction of movement of the food piece holders is reversed after loading the buffer, Last In - First Out. This type of buffer device is, however, simple in construction and operation and therefore constitutes a lower cost alternative.

Figs. 4a to 4c show an alternative mobile buffer arrangement. Advantageously, each individual food piece holder 25 defines a carrying plane 26 where food pieces 27 are held. The carrying planes of each holder is preferably kept substantially horizontal during movement of the plurality of food piece holders along the closed loop path, to ascertain that food pieces held on each carrying plane 26 stay on the individual holder. This may be achieved by affixing the food piece holder rotatingly to the drive system 30 (see Figs. 1 to 3), for example on an arm 29 extending from the carrying plane so that the holder may swing about a horizontal axis to automatically strive for a substantially horizontal orientation of the carrying plane.

The drive system 30 further is arranged to move the entire mobile buffer device 10 from a first location to a second location using traction devices 45 located at a bottom of the drive system, i.e. the bottom of housing 40. The traction devices may be wheels, threads similar to those of an armoured tank, rollers, or any other device that may provide traction in a desired direction and at a desired speed.

A control device 35 is attached to the frame 15 and has a computer processor (not shown) and memory (not shown) to store instructions and data. The control device manages the drive system 30 and thus the movement of the plurality of food piece holders 25 along the closed loop path as well as the movement of the entire mobile buffer device 10.

The plurality of food piece holders 25 is preferably driven along the closed loop path by a first electric motor 50 and the traction devices 45 are preferably driven by a second electric motor (not shown). The first and second electric motors are preferably energized by at least one battery (not shown), either a common battery for both motors or a separate battery for each motor.

The drive system 30, control device 35 and battery or batteries are preferably arranged and protected inside a housing 40 mounted to the base 20 of the frame. Fig. 5 shows a food management system 100 according to an embodiment. A plurality of mobile buffer devices 10 is shown. As few as one single mobile buffer device may be used according to the disclosure, but processing speeds in modern food production facilities would necessitate the use of a plurality of buffer devices in most applications to cope with the required throughput. A receiving area A, where individual food pieces are to be received by the mobile buffer device 10, cooperates with out-feed areas 55 of two or more conveyor devices 60. The feeding of food pieces from the out-feed areas to the food piece holders 25 is preferably step-wise, meaning that one food piece is fed onto the waiting holder 25 and then the progress of the corresponding conveyor device 60 is temporarily halted to wait for either the mobile buffer device 10 to move incrementally a certain distance perpendicular to a feed direction of food pieces in order to deposit a further food piece on the same holder, or the plurality of food holders 25 are together moved a certain incremental distance along the closed loop path in order to position a further holder having free holding space to the out-feed area.

The type of the food pieces at the two or more conveyor devices 60 may be different, and each out-feed area 55 may be served by one or more mobile buffer devices 10.

Fig. 5 further shows a plurality of selectable processing devices, a first selectable processing device 110, a second selectable processing device 120 and a third selectable processing device 130. As illustrated, the first device 110 and the second device 120 may operate in sequence, first device 110 then device 120. Mobile buffer devices 10 transport food pieces from the receiving area A to an infeed of the first device 110, where the food pieces are processed and exit at an outfeed of the first device 110 where the food pieces are loaded into another or the same mobile buffer device for transportation to an infeed of the second device 120. The processed food pieces exit the second device 120 at an outfeed of the second device and are loaded onto a mobile buffer device for transportation to further processing steps, for example packaging.

Fig. 5 further shows an example of processing in a single processing device, namely the third selectable processing device 130. Mobile buffer devices 10 transport food pieces from the receiving area A to an infeed of the third device 130, where the food pieces are processed and exit at an outfeed of the third device 130 where the food pieces are loaded into another or the same mobile buffer device for transportation to further processing steps, for example packaging. Fig. 5 also shows a charging device 140 having a plurality of charging outlets 145.

The drive system 30 of each mobile buffer device has a re-charger (not shown) operably connected to a power meter (not shown) for measuring a state-of-charge of a battery (not shown) used to power the drive system. The control device 35 automatically instructs the drive system to move the mobile buffer device 10 to, and electrically engage with an un occupied charging outlet 145 of the charging device 140 when the power meter indicates the state-of-charge is below a pre-defmed power level, to charge the battery. It is thus prevented that a buffer device suddenly is without power and is stopped during the food processing steps. Preferably, if a given buffer device needs to be re-charged and is thus non operational for some time, this may be communicated by the control device to the remaining buffer devices that may react accordingly and e.g. automatically update their route to the different processing devices.

In an embodiment, the drive system of the mobile buffer devices may automatically be instructed by the control device to move the mobile buffer device to a cleaning device (not shown), where the mobile buffer device will be automatically cleaned, for example by cleaning liquid spray or similar. The visit to the cleaning device may advantageously be combined with a visit to the charging device to minimize long distance travel for the mobile buffer device.

Fig. 6 shows a food management system 100 according to a further embodiment. The same reference numbers are used as for Fig. 5, except for the added path indicated B, where selected mobile buffer devices 10 that have collected food pieces that have been tagged in a first scanning process in the first processing device 110, and consequently have been selectively treated in the second processing device 120, are re-routed back to the first processing device for a re-scan of the same property or properties that were flagged during the first scan. If the individual food piece is now found to meet the requirements, it is un-flagged and will be transported by a mobile buffer device 10 to a further processing step when reaching the outfeed of the first processing device, indicated with path C.

While the disclosure has been illustrated and described in detail in the drawings and foregoing description, such illustration and description are to be considered illustrative or exemplary and not restrictive; the disclosure is not limited to the disclosed embodiments. Other variations to the disclosed embodiments can be understood and effected by those skilled in the art in practicing the claimed disclosure, from a study of the drawings, the disclosure, and the appended claims. In the claims, the word "comprising" does not exclude other elements or steps, and the indefinite article "a" or "an" does not exclude a plurality. The mere fact that certain measures are recited in mutually different dependent claims does not indicate that a combination of these measures cannot be used to advantage.

The disclosure further relates to the following numbered embodiments.

1. A food management system for automatically transferring food pieces to at least one selectable processing device, the system comprising:

- a mobile buffer device comprising a frame and a plurality of food piece holders

movably attached to the frame, the food piece holders being moveable along a closed loop path, for receiving individual food pieces and holding them,

- a drive system operated by a control device, the drive system being arranged to move the plurality of food piece holders of the mobile buffer device in accordance with instruction data,

- the drive system further being arranged to move the entire mobile buffer device from a first location to a second location, wherein the instruction data defines a traveling path between first instruction data defining the first location and second instruction data defining the second location, the first location data indicating a selection of a receiving position where individual food pieces are to be received by the mobile buffer device, and the second location data indicating a selection of a delivery position where the held food pieces are to be delivered by the mobile buffer device.

2. The food management system according to embodiment 1, wherein the receiving position is one chosen from the group of:

- an outfeed area of a conveyor device,

- an infeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing devices,

- an outfeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing devices.

3. The food management system according to any of the preceding embodiments, wherein the delivery position is one chosen from the group of:

- an infeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing devices, - an outfeed position of any of the at least one selectable processing devices, wherein the receiving position is not the same as the delivery position.

4. The food management system according to any of the preceding embodiments, wherein the system comprises a plurality of mobile buffer devices operable simultaneously.

5. The food management system according to any of the preceding embodiments, wherein the plurality of food piece holders are operably connected to a tracking module and where a position of each individual food piece within the mobile buffer device is tracked and the information stored in the tracking device.

6. The food management system according to any of the preceding embodiments, wherein the first position is an infeed of a first selectable processing device and food pieces held on the food piece holders of the mobile buffer device are associated with third position data indicating an outfeed position of the first selectable processing device and fourth position data indicating an infeed position of a second selectable processing device.

7. The food management system according to embodiment 6, wherein the first selectable processing device comprises a detection mechanism for determining at least one characteristic property of an individual food piece, where based on the detected characteristic property a subsequent processing step for the individual food piece to be performed by the second selectable processing device is determined and the fourth position data is associated with the individual food piece indicating the infeed position of the second selectable processing device.

8. The food management system according to any of the preceding embodiments, wherein the drive system comprises a wireless transceiver to communicate with the control device, where the wireless transceiver receives the instruction data and communicates the instruction data to the control device.

9. The food management system according to any of the preceding embodiments, wherein the drive system comprises a re-charger operably connected to a power meter for measuring a state-of-charge of a battery used to power the drive system, where the control device is further configured to automatically instruct the drive system to move the mobile buffer device to and electrically engage with a charging device when the power meter indicates the state-of-charge is below a pre-defmed power level, to charge the battery.

10. The food management system according to any of the preceding embodiments, wherein the receiving area, where individual food pieces are to be received by the mobile buffer device, cooperates with out-feed areas of two or more conveyor devices and where the type of the food pieces at the two or more conveyor devices is different.

11. The food management system according to any of the preceding embodiments, further comprising a load balance module configured to monitor and compare a load of the food pieces held on the plurality of food piece holders of the mobile buffer device with the current capacity of the selectable processing devices, where in case the current capacity is lower than the load of the held food pieces a temporary storage section separate from the mobile buffer device is selected and the non-processable food pieces are moved into the temporary storage section from the mobile buffer device.

12. The food management system according to any of the preceding embodiments, wherein the selectable processing devices are selected from the group of:

- a deboning device,

- a cooling device,

- a surface inspection device,

- an inspection device,

- a robot loading device,

- a weighing device,

- an injection device,

- a food piece coating device,

- a cleaning device,

- a batching device,

- a portion cutter device, and

- a charging device. 13. The food management system according to any of the preceding embodiments, wherein the food pieces are derived from larger food objects by dividing the larger food objects.

14. A method for automatically transferring food pieces to at least one selectable processing device, using a food management system comprising:

- a mobile buffer device comprising a frame and a plurality of food piece holders

movably attached to the frame, for receiving individual food pieces and holding them,

- a drive system operated by a control device, the drive system being arranged to move the plurality of food piece holders of the mobile buffer device in accordance with instruction data,

- the drive system further being arranged to move the entire mobile buffer device from a first location to a second location, the method comprising the steps of:

- moving the mobile buffer device to a first location using first location instruction data indicating a selected receiving position,

- receiving individual food pieces onto at least one food piece holder of the mobile buffer device from at least one conveyor device carrying a plurality of food pieces,

- if two or more food pieces are to be received by the mobile buffer device, moving the food piece holders along a closed loop path for presenting an empty space on one of the food piece holders to the at least one conveyor device,

- moving the entire buffering device along a traveling path defined by the instruction data from the receiving position to a delivery position,

- delivering at least one of the individual food pieces held by the mobile buffer device to an infeed located at the delivery position.

15. The method according to embodiment 14, wherein the method further comprises:

- tracking a position of each individual food piece within the mobile buffer device,

- storing the information in the tracking device, and

- using the stored position information to selectively retreive a particular individual food piece from the mobile buffer device. 16. The method according to any of embodiments 14 or 15, wherein the method further comprises the steps of:

the first position being an infeed of a first selectable processing device, moving the mobile buffer device to an outfeed of the first selectable processing device,

processing the food pieces in the selectable first processing device,

receiving individual food pieces onto at least one food piece holder of the mobile buffer device from the outfeed of the first selectable processing device, and

moving the mobile buffer device to an infeed of a second selectable processing device, and delivering at least one of the individual food pieces held by the mobile buffer device to the infeed of the second selectable processing device.

17. The method according to any of the embodiments 14 to 16, wherein the method further comprises:

- determining at least one characteristic property of an individual food piece in the first selectable processing device using a detection mechanism,

- determining, based on the detected characteristic property, a subsequent processing step for the individual food piece to be performed by the second selectable processing device.

18. The method according to any of embodiments 14 to 17, further comprising:

- cooperating, during feeding of the mobile buffer device, with out-feed areas of two or more conveyor devices and where the type of the food pieces at the two or more conveyor devices is different.