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Robotics leaves food untouched by human hands

12 December 2011

Alan Spreckley, food segment manager, ABB Robotics, makes the case for the food sector to embrace robotics in order to improve hygiene in their factories

In today’s food and beverage production environment, where safety, cost and the need to adapt to changes to remain competitive are vital, robots present an ideal way forward for hygienic food processing applications.

In fact, robot-based automation is now more than capable of helping companies achieve a hygienic production process, untouched by human hands.

Consumer demands for quality and safety, coupled with the impact of increased regulation, continue to challenge food producers already fighting to compete in one of the most demanding and fast moving production environments in the world.

As a fast, flexible and proven means of producing vast quantities of products, the latest generation of robots can help to overcome many of these challenges. Indeed, the UK food and beverage sector has already been one of the great success stories for robotic automation.

In the past three years, demand for industrial robots in the sector has grown by an impressive 300%, with units handling a wide range of 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 about 240 robots and 115 robots per 10,000 workers respectively, the UK’s own take-up rate is noticeably behind, at just 52 robots per 10,000 workers.

The success of robotic automation in this industry can be attributed largely to its forward-thinking approach and its willingness to embrace advanced manufacturing technology. However, it is still the case that the majority of robots in the industry tend to be engaged in picking, packing and palletising operations.

For suppliers and manufacturers of robotic automation, the challenge now is to persuade food producers the same benefits they enjoy in end-of-line processes are also possible in other areas of production, including hygienic handling.

Ironing out the bugs
For any food producer, potential contamination of their product is a nightmare scenario that must be avoided at all costs. The costs associated with wastage, product recalls and loss of consumer confidence can be crippling, not to mention the consequences of any legal action that might arise as a result of death or injury caused by any contamination.

For this reason, companies take every effort to ensure the hygiene of their production areas. Even so, even in the most stringent production environments, there will always be a risk of contamination from human sources.

This fact alone presents a strong case for the use of automation equipment in hygienic processes. The European Hygienic Engineering & Design Group (EHEDG) has published many best practice guidelines and recommendations to comply with the increase of regulations and standards relating to the hygienic design of machinery for packaging and processing applications. One fundamental European regulation is the EU Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC.

It calls on machinery suppliers to meet essential hygienic requirements for the handling of foodstuffs, along with requirements to minimise the risks to hygiene arising from the use of machinery.

The Directive specifically requires machinery for food processing to be designed and constructed with safety in mind and to avoid risk of infection, sickness or contamination. For example, machines should be easy to clean before use, and easily dismantled for cleaning where necessary.

Robots designed for food and beverage applications offer a highly hygienic and sanitary solution for food processing and primary packaging. They do not contract illnesses or have foreign bodies, such as hair or nails, which could fall into and contaminate food products.

Moreover, today’s robots are designed specifically for hygienic wash-down procedures and are therefore ideal for use in high-risk production areas, such as food production.

Surpassing expectations
As the demand for robots in food and beverage processes has grown, it has become more viable for robot manufacturers and their partners to start developing specific solutions aimed at particular processes, rather than just adapting models originally designed for use in other industries. Food-grade robots are today, inherently clean and undergo stringent testing to adhere to hygienic production regulations.

Robotic technology is thoroughly tested and manufactured under special production procedures. For example, ABB’s robotic technology is certified by The Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart where all robotic technology is rigorously tested over an extended period to evaluate suitability and surface cleanliness attributes.

One area where particular progress has been made is in hygienic design. An example is ABB’s FlexPicker, which incorporates a number of features to make it suitable for use in food applications, including corrosion-resistant materials, a special paint finish and the inclusion of slide bearings on its fourth axis for easy cleaning with detergents.

These models are also equipped with food grade lubricants, seals and epoxy paints required to meet the demands of the high-pressure wash-down applications typically found in the food industries.

Modern robotic technology has also been proven to surpass not only food processors expectations but the maximum normal requirements for ingress protection against dust and water. In addition to its IP67 approved robots, for example, ABB also offers versions with an IP69k wash-down rating, for use in high-pressure, high-temperature wash-down applications.

The IP69k rating was designed for applications where high pressure and high temperature wash down are required to sanitise equipment. It was first developed for road vehicles, especially those that need regular intensive cleaning (dump trucks or cement mixers) but has now found use in other areas such as the food and beverage industries where products need to withstand harsh sanitary wash down procedures.

Such developments are opening up a host of new opportunities for utilising robots in the meat handling and processing industries new applications, including the handling of raw products such as fish or chicken.

Less cost, greater simplicity
The case for using robotic automation in food and beverage applications has been further strengthened by significant developments in robotic technology, These developments have not only made robots easier to use, but less costly as well.

Consider, for example, that while hourly wages have risen 105% over the past 20 years, the costs of robots has reduced by 48%. This is particularly important as 99% of manufacturing companies are SMEs.

Given these developments, it is almost certain the rate of adoption of robot-based automation will continue to grow dramatically over the coming years. 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 often far outweighs any lingering concerns over their introduction.

Proven to work
That robots can bring very real benefits to companies of all sizes is well proven. For users 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.

In an application designed for The Charkman Group, a Swedish manufacturer of cooked meat products, the introduction of ABB’s FlexPicker robot has not only dramatically improved production but also guaranteed hygienic conditions. Working with ABB’s partner AEW Delford, part of the Marel Group, the plant introduced a fully automated slicing line that slices and packs high volumes of salami, ham, turkey, rolled pork and other cooked meats.

The FlexPicker wash-down stainless steel version has been implemented here as it especially suited for use in hygienic production of open foods such as meat, dairy products and ready-made meals. The new system provides a very high level of flexibility in that is slices a wide variety of products and can be programmed to handle some 26 pack variations and sizes.

The labour-saving benefits, easy hygienic and safety aspects of the new system are impressive in their own right, but the proven capabilities of the system ensures products can be quickly and perfectly handled with a level of precision and consistency.

As the tangible benefits of robotic solutions become ever more apparent, it is widely expected that robots will be adopted at a much higher rate, particularly in the food and beverage and pharmaceutical industries thanks to new hygienic designs that not only extend the life of machinery and equipment but reduce labour and maintenance costs simultaneously.

The challenge for manufacturers now is to reassess their strategy in order to identify opportunities to exploit the hygienic advantages of integrating robotics into food and beverage and pharmaceutical operations. For applications where hygienic conditions are of utmost importance, the situation has changed and there’s no longer a reason to dismiss the advantages that automation can bring.

 Alan Spreckley is food segment manager, ABB UK Robotics



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