Fraunhofer Institute

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Researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging IVV in Dresden have developed a mobile cleaning device that sanitises equipment and production spaces to standards in a reproducible way.

Production lines and hygiene zones have to be spotlessly clean. And absolute cleanliness is critical wherever food is processed and medical instruments are handled. Now Fraunhofer’s robot, which is equipped with self-learning and autonomous motility systems, can automatically detect the degree of fouling and select the appropriate cleaning procedure.

There is no room for compromises when it comes to hygiene in industrial food production. Manufacturing equipment and rooms need regular cleaning, while biofilms and other fouling deposits must not be allowed to gain purchase under any circumstances. The success of cleaning efforts has an impact on hygiene and food safety, and, although the task of cleaning plants and equipment is demanding and a determining factor of quality, much of this labour is still done manually. Despite the vigilance of diligent cleaning crews, their work is hard to reproduce, prone to errors and time-consuming.

Smart robot cleaners for indoors and out

This has prompted a research team at the Fraunhofer Institute for Process Engineering and Packaging to develop a modular cleaning robot, two variants of which are now up and running. One travels down the production line on a conveyor belt, cleaning the equipment from the inside, the other cleans the floor, ceilings and walls of rooms and machines outer surfaces.

An extendable robot arm carrying a rotary jet cleaner can stretch to reach high spots on the production line. This mobile, modular machine with the ability to independently scoot across the shop floor goes by the name of Mobile Cleaning Device 4.0 (MCD). The Fraunhofer IVV has teamed up with the Fraunhofer IOSB-AST at Ilmenau in a research project to look into a multi-sensor system for harsh environments. It is to be installed in the MCD. This system employs an interesting method called fluorosensing to spot contaminations. The installed sensors scan and calculate the degree of fouling for the robot to adaptively adjust cleaning parameters, such as pressure and the amount of foam cleaning agent to suit the situation.

Sophisticated sensors

The battery-powered robot moves autonomously with nothing but a hose for the cleaning agent connecting to the docking station. It is controlled via Wi-Fi and advanced sensors paired with AI enable this adaptive cleaning.

A radar sensor is able to take readings even through spray, mist and steam, while an ultra-wideband sensor gauges the position in the room.

A third sensor, an optical fluorosensor, detects fouling and conveys an impression of the object’s geometric properties. Experts call this “Visual Odometry.” The system extrapolates the process parameters from the detected fouling levels and fused sensor data. It also monitors the process on the fly to make sure the cleaning is being done properly. In the next step, it sends the results of its check to the virtual twin with the self-learning capability. This way, the system improves itself with each pass to achieve excellent results while sparing resources.

The benefits do not end there, an automated routine documents the entire cleaning process and all that automation ensures the procedure is highly reproducible.

Agile and flexible – the industry-agnostic Mobile Cleaning Device

The MCD’s application range is not limited to the food industry. The smart robot can serve other lines of business well, for example, the automotive, pharmaceutical, medical engineering, cosmetics and agricultural sectors.