Developing advanced technologies for the food industry

Millitec Food Systems are world leaders in the design and technology of automation machines for the food production industry.

Established in 2005, the South Derbyshire-based company manufactures, sells and supports state-of-the-art hi-tech machinery including mixers, ultrasonic cutters, depositors, butterers, sanitisers and production conveyors.

As well as developing cutting-edge equipment, the company offers a consultancy service to advise its customers on setting up and trouble-shooting food production lines to ensure maximum efficiency and food safety.

Demand for automated production lines and equipment is increasing. Food manufacturers have faced a skills shortage during the past 15 years – a problem exacerbated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

To support the development of new technologies, in 2020, Millitec launched a 24-month KTP project with the University – specifically, researchers in the Department of Computer Science who have expertise in artificial intelligence (AI), machine vision and machine learning.

Benefits for the company

The partnership has yielded the unique sandwich-building robot, the i-Gene delta robot. Offering new levels of control, precision, speed, quality and safety – it is a gamechanger in the food production industry.

Using machine vision and embedded AI technology paired with a camera, i-Gene’s intelligent vision system allows it to “see”.

It can recognise, track and manipulate different ingredients in real-time – and undertake advanced automation tasks such as picking up the right ingredients in the right order and amount to build the perfect sandwich.

The first i-Gene robot was deployed in October 2020 in one of the UK’s biggest sandwich-making factories. It produces an astonishing 750,000 sandwiches a day – addressing the long-running staff shortage faced by the industry.

As a result, Millitec now have a strategic advantage in the marketplace, and orders have been placed for the new robots developed during the KTP, with the company reporting a significant boost to business.

During the partnership, Millitec ventured into the North American market, working with new partners to supply their traditional product line. The new flagship robot provides an additional competitive edge in this emerging marketplace.

The knowledge and expertise developed during the KTP is securely embedded within the company. It has the necessary technical documentation and source code for the innovative vision system software.

As well as supporting the production of current models of the i-Gene robots, this will allow future development and extensibility. New roles are being created to support this innovation, offering high-skill employment in robotics and software development to at least six people.

"The KTP has worked extremely well – and we’re keen to continue our collaboration with the University. To ensure the success of the project and reap its full benefits, we’re developing a team with expertise in robotics and software development."

Richard Ledger
Managing Director – Millitec Food Systems

Benefits for the University

The academic team, led by Professor Baihua Li and Professor Qinggang Meng have enriched their already extensive commercialisation experience and significantly enhanced their research portfolio. And, developing a novel Industry 4.0 application for the food industry, has led them to consider how challenges within related areas – including vertical farming and sustainable agriculture – could be similarly addressed.

In recognition for his outstanding work, Dr Mohamad Saada (the KTP Associate) was among the finalists of the KTP Future Leader Award. He is now employed at Loughborough as a Lecturer in Computer Science – and is well-equipped to provide students with the skills and knowledge required by a fast-moving industry.

The KTP has benefited students in other ways – via research, placement and employment opportunities at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. For example, a number of industry challenge projects have been established, some co-supervised by Dr Saada. The students involved have delivered high-quality outcomes.

The KTP has also featured in recruitment materials for University Open Days and during workshops, including a webinar about AI research at Loughborough which attracted more than 200 attendees worldwide.

Plans are in train for Millitec to provide PhD opportunities and placement projects to Loughborough students to continue their work in this area while providing invaluable experience and learning to the students.

The partnership was the winner of the Made in the Midlands 2023 Food and Drink Award.

Meet the experts

Photograph of Baihua Li

Professor Baihua Li

Professor of Computer Vision and Machine Learning

Photograph of Qinggang Meng

Professor Qinggang Meng

Professor of Robotics and Artificial Intelligence

The UKRI Innovate UK logo

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships aim to help businesses improve their competitiveness and productivity through the better use of knowledge, technology and skills within the UK knowledge base.

This KTP project was funded by UKRI through Innovate UK.