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Robotics and automation in the agri-food industry could improve productivity, reduce waste, maximise safety and lower costs, Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots has said.

The Minister made the remarks as he launched a research and development project between CAFRE and the Northern Ireland Technology Centre at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) to investigate the opportunities for robotics and automation in the NI Agri-food industry.

Launching the scheme, Minister Poots said: “Robotics and automation have progressed at a lightning speed in the last few decades and that momentum is sure to continue. Embedding robotics and automation into our food manufacturing and packaging processes brings so many advantages from increased precision, improved safety, reducing costs, minimising waste and maximising productivity.

“I am therefore pleased to launch a collaborative project between CAFRE and the Northern Ireland Technology Centre (NITC) at Queen’s University Belfast which aims to explore how our largest manufacturing sector can make the most of robotics and automation in their production lines.

The project will use virtual modelling of food production processes in real time and help to raise awareness of this technology across the industry. The project will be based at CAFRE’s Loughry Campus and will draw on the expertise of NITC’s work with other manufacturing sectors.

“Importantly, the project will also see robotics and automation embedded into future CAFRE curriculum, ensuring our students are equipped for emerging opportunities in this area."

The Minister concluded: “The last 100 years has seen technology advance at an incredible rate. In this centenary year for Northern Ireland, I am encouraged to see the local sector preparing for the next 100 years through this exciting development.”

Welcoming the launch of the project, Queen’s University Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Greer, commented: “This collaborative project between the Northern Ireland Technology Centre (NITC) and CAFRE is a shining example of the world leading research taking part at Queen’s and highlights the importance of the University’s links with industry.

“The NITC is part of the City Deal project Advanced Manufacturing Innovation Centre (AMIC), which reinforces the importance of partnership and scale. AMIC builds on 50 years of sustained innovation and industry support through the NITC, the Polymers Processing Research Centre and the more recent university-industry partnership, NI Advanced Composites and Engineering, and will consolidate and enhance these existing facilities.

“At Queen’s, we are focused on seizing opportunities where Northern Ireland has international strength and capability. Working closely with industry, we hope that our cutting-edge research and expertise robotics, automation and manufacturing will help transform food manufacturing and packaging processes and allow local companies to deliver growth and scale up.”