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New crab processor shown off during Innovation Week

Crabs inside the processor.
Crabs inside the processor.

Seven years after the initial concept, a new crab processor is ready for fish plants around the province and beyond, according to its creators, cutting back on the need for physical labour.

Bob Verge with the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation (CCFI) led a show-and-tell at the Fisheries and Marine Institute of Memorial University of Newfoundland (MUN) Thursday as part of Innovation Week in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Bob Verge, managing director with the Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation, explains the operations of the “robotic cell for butchering crab” during a demonstration of new leading-edge fish processing equipment at the Marine Institute on Thursday.

With a push on a digital screen, crab bodies were rolled along a conveyor belt into the clear-windowed box of a machine. Inside the box, the full height of Verge, they were plucked up and transferred to a holding point, where robotic arms proceeded to sever legs and split bodies as desired.

Verge spoke about the development of the equipment, noting it included the need to find a way to have the prototype “see” and properly respond to crab coming in; ABB robotic arms and other components had to be adapted to food processing, and then there was troubleshooting on everything from unwanted vibration to the digital controls.

Canadian Centre for Fisheries Innovation

“We had to be able to make it easy for people to work with in a (fish) plant,” Verge said.

The team did a test run last year at a plant in St. Lawrence.

Stephen King, one of the engineers who helped design the robotic cell, places crabs on the conveyer belt that transports them to the processor.

“I’m pleased with where we are,” said Stephen King, one of the lead mechanical engineers on the project. “I’m really pleased with the result.”

King is with the Marine Institute and worked with fellow engineer Paul Hearn, out of the College of the North Atlantic. The project was a true collaboration of the province’s post-secondary institutions and the non-profit CCFI.

Owned by MUN, CCFI is funded by the government, but specifically created to service industry. In this case, Ocean Choice International (OCI) partnered on the research and development work and it was tested at an OCI plant. The company now has a period of exclusive use for the machinery, Verge said.

There is a second, associated aspect — the removal of crabmeat from the shells — in development.

CCFI applied for associated patents in September and Verge said he believes they’ll be issued soon. The organization has been through a similar process with a previously developed piece of equipment for processing sea cucumber. That equipment is now in four or five plants in the province, he said, and the design has been licensed to allow a local manufacturer to produce it and sell it to industry.

“I think once people see its capabilities, there will be a lot of interest,” Verge said of the crab processor. “Nobody else in the world has anything even remotely like this.”

Everyone in the room acknowledged the machine would cut back labour requirements and mean fewer people to process the same amount of crab.

Verge said the sea cucumber processor replaced the work of about 20 people, but the tasks involved meant repetitive stress injuries were common. He suggested workers would be relieved to avoid the tasks that machine performed.

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