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A fresh perspective

17 April 2015

Chris Sumner, MD of FANUC UK, considers why robotic uptake within the fresh produce segment has been lower than that in other manufacturing sectors. 

To meet the tight deadlines required by supermarkets and retailers, it’s critical that a fast, high production through-rate is achieved. For the fresh produce sector in particular, this raises issues of quality and the need to minimise damage throughout the production process. There can be fairly hefty penalties if damaged produce hits retail shelves and the producers will be held responsible. Groceries Code Adjudicator, Christine Tacon, recently revealed how one chain fines suppliers £85 every time it receives a customer complaint relating to the product.

Automating a line is the ideal solution but traditionally price has been the biggest hurdle to overcome. However, investing in automation means increased efficiency and reduced overheads - such as agency workers or labour. In recent years robotic systems have become far more affordable than you may realise, for example the cost of FANUC’s latest palletiser the M410iC/185 is 7% lower compared to its predecessor, yet has a 12% increase in payload capacity. 

It’s important that each product is looked at individually, without applying a broad brush solution to automating a production line. If a punnet of strawberries needs to be moved from A to B and then put into a retail tray, fast movement can cause horrendous damage to the product, so by the time they’re in the tray, juice is already coming out.

So how can robots help? For picking and placing a punnet of strawberries, a Fanuc LR Mate 200iD 7L would be ideal. The six-axis robot has a reach of up to 911mm and, because it’s only about the size of a human arm, it minimises space requirements. Its diversity enables it to handle a broad range of unwrapped goods such as single root vegetables which need to be topped and tailed.

The next level up, the LR Mate 200iD 7L, is a six-axis robot with a reach of 91mm. A successor to Fanuc’s LR-Mate200iC, a new slim arm design was engineered to minimise interference to peripheral devices and it can therefore operate in much narrower spaces than traditional robots. In pick and place applications, it is 35% faster than its predecessor and has been specified to work with a diverse range of produce, in this instance root vegetables.

For picking up polybags of onions or potatoes and placing them into retail trays or trolleys, Fanuc’s M20 high performance industrial robot is small but mighty, providing 35kg payload with the highest wrist movements and inertia in its class. This larger work envelope, allows for two lines to be simultaneously serviced. Produce can go in one direction into a cardboard box and the other direction into a retail tray.  

Efficiency isn’t merely a question of speed, it’s about selecting the right robot to suit a specific project. Robots have never been so economical and by removing the possibility of human error, the risk of damaged produce is minimised. For the fresh produce sector, this is vital when supplying goods on ever tightening deadlines. 

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