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Why robots are ideal ingredient for modern food producers


11 March 2011

Of the many industries that have embraced robotic technology, food and beverage has been by far the runaway success. In a range of applications worldwide, robots are helping food and beverage companies to realise new levels of flexibility, productivity and profitability.

The ever-shifting pattern of consumer tastes, coupled with a growing global market for a diverse range of foodstuffs, has made it more important than ever for companies to be able to quickly change or adapt their offering to keep pace.

When it comes to ensuring flexibility in picking, packing and palletising applications, today’s robotic technology offers a very real opportunity for UK food companies to boost their competitiveness.

In the last three years, demand for industrial robots in the UK food and beverage sector has grown by an impressive 300%, with units handling a wide range of both production and handling tasks. This figure is even more impressive given the lingering reluctance across UK industry as a whole to adopt robotic technology. Compared to Germany and Sweden, which boast take-up rates of around 240 robots and 115 robots per 10,000 workers respectively, the UK’s own take-up rate is noticeably lagging, at just 52 robots per 10,000 workers.

In the food industry, the growth in the adoption of robotic technology has been part of a wider drive to introduce a greater degree of advanced manufacturing technology into the food sector.

Compared with even a decade ago, the UK food industry has embraced new technologies that have helped to transform virtually all aspects of production, enabling a broader range of products to be processed more quickly, more profitably and with much improved consistency and quality.

As new technologies have been introduced, the awareness of the benefits that it can bring has also grown. Taking robots as an example, one of the key reasons behind their growth has been an increased realisation of the possibilities they offer, coupled with developments in the technology that have made it suitable for taking on an ever expanding list of tasks.

The flexibility of robotic technology makes it ideally matched to the inherently fast changing nature of many food and beverage processes. On the packaging side in particular, robots can be quickly adapted to handle new product designs and package shapes, with no need for extensive reprogramming or reconfiguration.

Significant strides forward in robotic control and gripper technology have also meant that more products can now be handled by robots. Even the most fragile products, such as bread or brittle goods, like biscuits, can now be lifted, moved and packed with greatly reduced levels of product wastage.

The availability of high-speed picking, packaging and palletising robots with ever greater speed and precision capabilities also opens up new possibilities for fast performance, particularly ideal for meeting tight order deadlines or increased order quantities.

Developments in speed and precision have also been accompanied by advances in end-of-arm tooling, enabling robots to be used in a growing range of applications.

One example is ‘vortex handling’ technology, which uses suction, rather than grip, to enable the safe handling of particularly fragile products such as poppadums, for example.

In addition to increased up-time and productivity, robotic automation can also help to reduce much of the cost and time associated with employee issues such as workplace accidents and increasingly demanding workplace legislation.

Despite all these benefits, and a heritage spanning over 50 years, robots are still deemed as ‘new technology’ by many users, anxious over perceived complexity or cost. Smaller companies especially, which have limited financial and technical resources and are consequently more risk-averse, often tend to see robots as the preserve of larger companies.

That robots can bring very real benefits to companies of all sizes is well proven. For users both worldwide and throughout the UK, the decision to automate with robots has provided a key competitive advantage in an industry where margins are tight and the pressure to deliver on time and in the right quantities is paramount.

Most importantly for the UK’s cost-conscious companies, robots have become increasingly affordable, opening up new opportunities, particularly for small to medium enterprises, where they might previously have been regarded as prohibitively expensive.

Given these factors, I’m confident that the rate of adoption of automation in general, and robots in particular, is likely to continue to grow dramatically. The benefits of improved product quality and consistency, coupled with enhanced profitability and product throughput, provides a strong case for the implementation of robots that far outweighs any lingering concerns over their introduction.

For more information about ABB’s robots for food production, visit, email or call 01908 350300 ref. ‘Robots for food’.

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