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The robot revolution

22 August 2014

There has been a recent, positive shift in the UK towards robotics in the food industry. Where will that position robotics in the next five years?

With food and beverage processors and manufacturers looking to reduce costs as raw material prices rise and consumer spending power declines, robots are slowly becoming a more attractive option for companies. Until recently, robots were considered to be expensive, complicated, unreliable and inflexible compared to what a human could do, or learn, or see. Modern food processing industries were born out of the gradual industrialisation of traditional techniques, with automation being adopted as equipment became available. A generation ago, a food processing plant consisted of conveyors bringing ingredients to workstations, which may have been manual or mechanised. “To date,” says Rich Walker, Managing Director at Shadow Robot Company, “robots have barely helped the beleaguered food production engineer. But we believe this is about to change.”

John Rainer, Regional Sales Manager at FANUC UK agrees. “Although way behind the rest of the EU and US markets in terms of sales, the UK food industry has taken a sudden interest in robots over the past 12 months. We predict that sales of robots to this sector will amount to 600 units over the next five years, a 27% increase on the combined figures for the last five years.”

“Over the past few months, every survey that has been published has increasing growth and business confidence within the manufacturing sector,” says Mike Wilson, President of BARA, the British Automation and Robotics Association. “The EEF have predicted 3.6% growth in manufacturing throughout 2014. This is all excellent news and bodes very well for the future of UK manufacturing.”

Towards the end of 2013, the All Party Parliamentary Manufacturing Group produced a report “Making Good”, which studied the issues affecting the manufacturing sector, looking specifically at competitiveness and investment. One of the key conclusions was a cultural resistance to automation in the UK. “The main issues appear to relate to the perceived risk of implementing automation,” Wilson continues. “The need to consider longer term investment and to enhance the skillset within the business to implement and maintain the automation are not insurmountable issues. The payback is often shorter than the perception. The challenge is often in the longer term planning, figuring out where the company wants to be in 10 years and how to get there. A key element of this plan should be an automation strategy covering all aspects.”

Recent growth
In the first quarter of 2014, robots sales outside of the automotive industries achieved a new record, with the food and beverage industry being the largest within this group. “Robot sales in 2013 compared to 2012 in the food and beverage sector saw growth of 28%,” says Wilson. “As one of our largest manufacturing sectors, food has always had the potential to be a large-scale user of robots, but has yet to embrace the benefits of robots in the same way as the automotive industry.”

In fact, looking at figures comparing 2000 and 2013, there has been a 60% increase in food sector adoption of robots. But Rainer believes this is just the start. “The International Federation of Robotics forecasts that two million jobs will be created in the next eight years, thanks to the robotics industry. And between 60,000 and 80,000 new activity jobs will be created in the food industry alone between 2012 and 2016.”

Technology improvements have had a big hand in this growth, as well as the growing use of robots in the packaging section of the processing line. “Confidence in robots is increasingly spreading across the whole plant,” says Chris Evans, Marketing and Operations Group Manager, Automation Systems Division, Mitsubishi Electric. “Food processors are realising that robots have many attributes that are particularly well-suits to their industries. They’re flexible and can hold multiple programmes in their memory, so they’re easily able to switch between jobs. They don’t tire or slow down, nor do unexpected things that could compromise safety. They can work through the night or for long hours. They’re consistent in their movements, ensuring product quality and their own safety in a way that human operators cannot.”

Technology has already had a huge impact on robot development and design, and will continue to do so over the next few years. “For robots to be adopted widely by food producers, precision, dexterity, accuracy, speed and the size of a robot are the key considerations,” says Rainer. “The incredible pace at which vision technology is developing, now with a more economical price tag, enables robots to be used to distinguish differences in size, shape and colour, but also greatly improves the accuracy of sorting, picking and placing countless found objects randomly placed across numerous lines. Furthermore, vision’s code reading capabilities can play a key role in helping food companies to meet product traceability requirements.”

Handling technology has improved vastly in recent years, which is also of specific benefit to the food industry. Customers reject products that are dented, bruised or scuffed in any way, so handling technology needs to be both versatile and delicate. “Handling technology has improved so greatly of late that system integrators are now designing end effectors combining vacuum, gripper and clam shell style offering a multifunctional solution to keep abreast of production changes at minimal expense,” Rainer adds.

Walker believes that the focus is moving from the traditional industrial robot to the professional service robot that works alongside or instead of a human employee, performing a dull or dangerous task. “Professional service robots milk cows, clean facades, move parts around industrial plans, lay insulation under floors of houses and inspect plant equipment,” says Walker. “The professional service robot combines tooling to perform the task with vision and motion to be able to work flexibly where and when needed.”

And while the cost of robotics is still pretty high (a large European study by the Fraunhofer IPA Institute called EFFIROB analysed a number of service robot designs, and revealed that to develop a robot product for a new technical scenario could cost between €1-5 million for the software component, even when off-the-shelf hardware could be used for the robot itself), the robotics development community has standardised on a common software platform; the Robot Operating System (ROS). ROS is a flexible framework for writing robot software; a collection of tools, libraries and conventions that aim to simplify the task of creating complex and robust robot behaviour. ROS allows collaborative development, because everyone is working from the same base.

“Between 50% and 90% of the software development costs can be removed from a service robot project,” Walker explains. “And the open source nature of ROS means that developers can build on top of existing work quickly and easily. Opening up the programming of robots makes it easier for small companies and innovative startups to create new types of robot product and systems. And early state investors are looking to fund these startups, which means that now is exactly the time to start working with bright researchers at universities to create a new generation of product technology and pilot it on your shop floor.”

Meanwhile, a new generation of hardware opens up the range of tasks the robots can perform. 3D camera systems allow robots to map the world, so they won't collide with the work or the workplace. Companies are producing next-generation flexible manipulators that can interact with a wider range of objects out of the box. New collaborative robots are safe to work alongside, without safety cages, so robots can be added to a production line quickly and easily, as and when needed.

“It is worth noting that finance from the banking sector is available,” Wilson adds. “Each individual business needs to develop their automation strategy, which requires a study of their current operations to determine where and how the use of robots might be beneficial. It may also require longer term planning to justify the investment, but the result will be improved productivity and competitiveness. Not only will this secure the future of those businesses that take these steps, but collectively we will ensure that UK manufacturing is the best in the world.”

Evans notes that on average, robots cost around £5/hour to operate. “Because they can run continuously, they are highly productive,” Evans explains. “Return on investment is usually around 18 months. Companies that invest in robots will be securing their long term future far better than those that choose to sub-contract out work.”

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