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Robotic manipulation comes of age?

19 October 2015

Soft Robotics utilises tentacle-like fingers
Soft Robotics utilises tentacle-like fingers

With robotic manipulation growing in leaps and bounds, what does it mean for the food and drink industry?

In June 2015, a year-old US start-up announced a partnership with Heinzen Manufacturing International, a Californian company that makes sorters, washers and chopping equipment for produce manufacturers that ship cut fruit and bagged and washed greens to retail. The company intends to offer clients a robotic arm equipped with a speciality gripper made by Soft Robotics. Their bright blue robotic fingers curl like tentacles around vegetables, traditionally a difficult sector of the food industry to infiltrate for robotics companies. The technology allows the robot to use programming to grab anything put in front of them, regardless of the size. The grippers inflate and deflate as needed, which means the company hasn’t had to rely on cameras or sensors to develop. Essentially, the octopus-like robot acts like the grasp of a human hand. 

Empire Robotics, on the other hand, has eliminated the need for fingers or tentacles altogether. Their grippers are round, with the green ball filled with a sand-like material. When air is pumped into the ball, the ball softens and is then pushed against the target object. Pulling air out of the ball jams the sand-like material together, causing the ball to harden. This transition from soft to hard creates the gripping forces. 

A robot has been developed as a result of an EU-funded project at Glasgow University which can sort and fold clothes, discriminating between different types of fabric by looking, touching and listening. Two specially designed grippers at the end of the robot’s arms are delicate enough to sort and fold, while two digital cameras provide sight. The grippers enable the robot to rub the material, determining through tactile sensing and via a microphone that picks up the sound of the texture what material the robot is dealing with. 

And last year saw the unveiling of Boris, a robot that was developed at Birmingham University and has the ability to pick up unfamiliar objects and put them back down again. Boris is able to pick up objects such as a dustpan, or measuring cup, or even crockery, which was loaded successfully into a dishwasher without dropping the items or breakages. Boris is able to demonstrate a power grip using its whole hand to curve around an object, or a pinch grip between two or three fingers, which the robot can then apply to learning new objects. This could mean robotics is a step closer to collaboration with humans, rather than being kept behind a safety cage.

These are just a handful of examples where academics and companies are working with cutting-edge technology to develop the next generation of robotic manipulation. It’s an exciting time to be working within the field of robotics, but how will these kinds of developments affect the food and drink industry?

“Currently, robots are most commonly used within the food industry for end of line packing and palletising,” explains Kevin Staines, Sales Director at CKF Systems. “The technologies are proven across many industry sectors and are completely transferable. Unfortunately, there is still reluctance in the food sector to invest in robotic automation downstream, with companies arguing that a robot offers less flexibility than a person can, and that costs of automation cannot be justified against the traditionally low cost of labour.”

Empire Robotics’ ground breaking technology
Empire Robotics’ ground breaking technology

There are three things that are currently changing that perception, according to Staines. The first is the introduction by government of a new ‘living wage’ within the summer budget which will mean that many more companies will focus greater attention on long term cost saving alternatives to manual labour. And secondly, the advance of vision capabilities and lasers is extending the use of robotics within the food industry, where tasks such as product inspection, can be integrated as part of the automated solution.

“And finally, the successful development of collaborative robots that work in the same space with humans,” says Staines. “The challenge in robotic manipulation has always been to replicate human dexterity. One of the human characteristics that until recently has been considered beyond a robot’s capability is their ability to work in tight spaces and to handle simultaneously items of differing materials, shapes and weights.”

ABB is one of several companies to have proved otherwise. The company launched YuMi, a collaborative, dual arm small parts assembly robot solution that includes flexible hands, parts feeding systems, camera-based part location and state-of-the-art robot control. It can collaborate side-by-side with humans in a normal manufacturing environment, which allows companies to get the best out of both their employees and their robot investment, together. YuMi is inherently safe as its design allows it to work alongside humans without the need for guarding, and within acceptable safety levels. It is able to perform the motions required in small parts assembly within a very small space while maintaining a human-like reach. It minimises the footprint on the factory floor and can be installed into the work stations that are only currently used by humans.

“These advances in robotic manipulation technology present the food processing industry with huge potential cost savings,” explains Staines. “A robot’s CV can now include the handling of delicate, flexible, naturally variable objects such as meat, fruit and vegetables that require sophisticated sensing and manipulation. That offers a potential reduction in labour costs as well as improvements to safety and a reduced risk of contamination through product handling.”

The usefulness of robotics in the food sector is mainly reserved for the finished product packaging and palletisation lines. The use of robotics at the end of the line is able to significantly boost the efficiency and productivity of end of line processes that can typically be cumbersome and inefficient, due to both the complexity of the operations and the sheer weight of the food or packs that need to be moved.

“A concrete example of efficiency linked to robotic automation is the combined management of boxing and palletising operations,” says Alessio Cocchi, Marketing Manager for Comau Robotics. “These two activities are increasingly managed not only by the same machine, but also at the same time, thanks to advances in robotics. Some robotics applications from systems integrators are even able to prepare the container casing, which can be a carton, a dispenser or a display, and then position the products inside the case so that they are ready for end of line palletising. This too is frequently robotised.”

A robot that can fold laundry
A robot that can fold laundry

Another example of the ability of robotics to increase efficiency in the food industry is the realisation of applications in which the robots work in cooperative motion, with the simultaneous management of 12 or more axes. 

“This particular application facilitates the manipulation and automation of packaging processes that are either very complex or require deep containers,” says Cocchi. “Until recently, these operations could only be carried out by human arms. Now, however, the machine is able to perform these repetitive and unrewarding actions, leaving more sophisticated tasks such as managing the line, to humans. Now, however, the machine is able to perform these repetitive and unrewarding actions, leaving more sophisticated tasks, such as managing the line, to humans. In this way, company personnel are involved in operations with higher added value, and lower risk of fatigue.”

Coping with food regulations
With the stage set for wide-scale adoption of robotics in manufacturing globally, Bosch Packaging Technology are expecting to see increased growth in automation within both small and medium-sized companies. 

“We are experiencing a paradigm shift in the packing industry, centred on flexible automation,” says Marc de Vries, Sales Director for Bosch Packaging Technology SA. “Robotics is already widely used for primary packaging industry, centred on flexible automation. Robotics is already widely used for primary packaging, but we also see great potential for secondary packaging to boost manufacturing productivity and flexibility even further.”

With ever-changing consumer demands for packaged food products in varied portion sizes and shapes that are convenient to be held in the hand and consumed on the go, robotics are one way to meet this growing demand with increased format flexibility. 

“Another benefit of robotics is that the machines perform consistently and can operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” de Vries adds. “This allows manufacturers to increase production, which results in a cost-per-unit reduction giving a competitive advantage. Furthermore, using robotic solutions helps manufacturers to avoid human contact with their products. Generally, we have seen a growing interest over the past few years in easy-to-clean and maintain packaging equipment, allowing food producers to comply with increasingly stringent food safety regulations. At Bosch, we’ve also noticed a clear trend towards complete line solutions versus standalone machines.”

Boris can manipulate unfamiliar products with care
Boris can manipulate unfamiliar products with care

Industry 4.0
There are three basic methods for programming industrial robots, but the majority are currently programmed using the traditional teach method. The other two methods are off-line programming – software – and the lead through method where an operator physically moves the robot arm through tasks recording positions. 

“The use of the latest robotic technology combined with human intelligence devices that connect to the internet and cyber-physical production systems has the power to redefine the manufacturing world,” says Tony Dowling, Robot Sales Specialist at KUKA Robotics UK. “Smart production, Internet of Things or Industry 4.0; even if the name changes from one country to another, they all share the same goal of creating competitive advantages on a local and global level.”

Technology is developing at a blisteringly fast pace, and it has been estimated that 26 billion devices will be networked by 2020, all exchanging data between the devices. 

“As robot manipulation – programmed movement – becomes deskilled, factory floor operations should therefore in turn become even more flexible,” explains Dowling. “Many food manufacturers do not have the luxury of producing or processing the same product 24/7, so flexible automation is key. Ideally, this automation technology should be moveable from one production line to another with very little set-up time. You may think this is science fiction, but it is in operation today.”

Investment and development in mobile robot technology has taken place over the past few years, which has worked well for universities and research institutes. This platform, combined with a seven axis robotic arm can work safely alongside human operators and can be programmed by being physically moved through the tasks. For larger scale processes, there are payloads from 90kg to 300kg which can be used. A larger omnidirectional platform is utilised. The platforms have been in use for many years, and are used to manoeuvre very large, heavy items accurately. 

“These developments offer traditional industrial nations the chance to return previously outsourced production capacity to locations in high-wage countries,” says Dowling. “This is because Industry 4.0 is creating the conditions for implementing the highest levels of customisation – all the way down to batch size 1 – within industrial manufacturing: high-quality single-piece production with the profitability of series production. Conventional manufacturing is being replaced by robofacturing, i.e. highly flexible factories in which humans and machines work hand in hand. The ability to design and build these highly efficient manufacturing systems will enable Industry 4.0 to contribute to the long-term securing of jobs in industrial nations. Furthermore, growing demand for customised products that can be configured easily via the internet will open up entirely new areas of business for industry.”

It’s not always easy to judge where the latest developments in robotics will appear in the food factory, or how one development can lead to another. But it’s clear that advancing robotic manipulation will be of huge benefit to the food and drink industry, whether it is in the more traditional setting of packaging and palletising, or if robotics will develop more into food processing, higher up the production line.

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