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Flexibility is key for robots in food production

14 October 2018

Food Processing spoke to companies that offer robotic solutions to find out more about how, where and why they are seeing robots being used today within the food and beverage manufacturing sector.  

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FP: Where in the food factory are you seeing the most interest from the food industry for the use of robotics – which type of robot and which type of application?
KUKA: The food industry has a long established relationship with automation and automated production lines with specific consideration to hygiene and high speed production. Many food companies will also have many years of experience with robots and robotic automation, primarily focused on the palletising of heavy boxes, high speed pick & place and packing operations.

With food packaging now accounting for over 40% of production costs, and with rising labour costs robot manufacturers continue to develop and prepare robots designed to overcome many food and beverage production challenges. The KUKA AGILUS small robot range, for example, is available in a hygienic variant with an easy to clean design which enables bacteria resistant operations in applications involving direct contact with food products providing robot solutions in food production areas where this was previously not possible. 

UNIVERSAL ROBOTS: Robots are ideal for repetitive tasks involving tiring and strenuous work throughout the food industry, both in processing and packaging. Collaborative robots (cobots) take this efficiency-building capability a step further, because they can often be placed side-by-side with the human workforce, with no need safety cages and protective equipment. Whether it is for scanning, stacking eggs, or packing food in cartons, cobots are at the forefront of the ongoing transformation of food industry processes and logistics. They have become the third helping hand in production as they are configured to take over repetitive, physically demanding work and give staff time and space for more interesting, varied tasks where they have greater value.

ON ROBOT: We are now seeing cobots and lightweight robots being adopted by the food industry because they are sensitive and flexible enough to handle delicate food products. They can also be used for a wide range of different applications including packaging, palletising, pick and place stacking and destacking.

RARUK AUTOMATION: Dry packing areas and end-of-line areas are particularly suited to the introduction of robots and are much requested. Robots deemed as collaborative, mobile or industrial are well suited to picking and packing boxes into boxes, palletising and automating internal transportation and logistics either within the end-of-line area or warehouse applications.  

Wherever people are currently moving materials or making deliveries of stock to a line, these tasks can be automated, allowing staff to focus on higher value activities that are more complex.
FP: What do you see as the biggest barriers to the use of robots in the food industry, and how can these barriers be overcome?
KUKA: Historically, the journey for many end users considering robot automation would quickly halt when their production model did not consist of single product type, large volume and high-speed production lines. Small batch production and high variance of product types continue to be a challenge but these barriers are now being overcome. The base model of robot automation has not changed significantly, as ultimately we still need to handle the same loads over the same footprint and space requirements, but the ability and intelligence of machinery to be more flexible is where the food industry can  capitalise. Small batch production is possible, quick product changeover is possible, data analytics and production monitoring is possible, and as result robot automation is no longer only targeted at large volume manufacturing. 

UNIVERSAL ROBOTS: There is a common misconception that robots cause unemployment which is simply not true. Robots should not be seen as a threat, but an opportunity - they make people’s work more valuable, just like other new tools. Applied correctly, new technologies have undeniably always created more value.

ON ROBOT: Variation of item sizes makes it more difficult to standardise the application process. To combat this, businesses need to be installing flexible robots and end-of-arm-tools (EoAT). An example of this is utilising a gripper that has force sensing elements in the finger-tips so will not damage sensitive items. Furthermore, a smart gripper that can detect item sizes automatically can help a lot, eliminating the need to program lengthy scripts. OnRobot’s grippers and sensors come with these hardware features in-built. 

Application deployment time will be affected by the necessity to handle multiple items with different sizes. Purchasing robots and EoAT that already have pre-programmed applications can again be helpful. 

RARUK AUTOMATION: The food industry can be limiting for robots where you think it should be easy to place them. Many companies begin by thinking they can install cobots, in particular, to replace people where mundane tasks are undertaken.  However, owing to the nature of the food manufacturing industry, IP ratings must be considered where unpackaged food products are being handled as most cobots are made from aluminium and not stainless steel.  They are generally not suitable for use in wash-down or ‘high care’ areas unless third-party clean jackets can be found.
FP: Can you offer any advice on how to achieve the best Return-on-Investment (ROI) from robotics?
KUKA: ROI is measured over several factors including, though not limited to, cost reduction, quality control (food safety compliance), improved traceability, better capacity planning and Health & Safety compliance. The successful approach has always proven to be an early engagement with a robot manufacturer or system integrator to identify the potential for robot automation and to help identify the correct applications, the correct solutions and most importantly the experienced support network needed to ensure the process is supported throughout the entire product lifecycle. It is no longer necessary to have high volume production or high-speed production. This is flexible automation for flexible manufacturing and with the correct partnerships the ROI can be identified early allowing us to assist food manufacturers in finding the most successful solutions and solution providers.

UNIVERSAL ROBOTS: When investing in cobots, ROI should be measured on how much of a human worker’s processes it can take on. However, many businesses calculate ROI by using the payback period, which is taking the cost of the robot and then dividing it by the monthly salary of the worker. If you calculate your ROI this way you will not be able to calculate the total value and impact that robot automation will have on your business. To make a more accurate calculation the first step is to start with the initial cost and consider the short-term and long-term tangible and intangible benefits that will be gained by investing in this type of automation. You should also consider what effect the deployment of collaborative robots might have on the health, wellbeing and safety of your employees. Also, what would these productivity gains mean for your business, and how much could robot automation save you in raw materials? 

ON ROBOT: When choosing a robot do consider the use of a graphical user-interface (GUI) that is easy to use and understand. Choose end-of-arm-tools that are flexible and which can be employed across  multiple applications rather than a solution that is limited to a single task. Finally, dual grippers can offer big time savings in suitable applications as they can pick and place simultaneously as opposed to a single gripper, speeding up the operation by up to 50%. 

RARUK AUTOMATION:  When it comes to getting a rapid return on investment for robotics it is important to plan, and to plan well. Know how much you’re going to invest so you can work out the payback and stick to this. Plan badly and you are likely to experience a lot of expensive surprises.

If you are new to robot implementation keep it simple. Plan a project in easy to accomplish stages to realise a faster ROI and begin earning money through faster processes as the project continues and seek expert automation advice in the early stages.

A good place to start is by looking at the processes that humans are currently doing.  Look at the tasks being performed and ask yourself, ‘What’s easy for the robots to do?’ They lend themselves to areas where a uniform and precise task is repeated. Don’t begin by thinking you can replace the human aspect. Instead, look to enhance the human role; task robots with the mundane and repetitive aspects and use humans to perform the tasks that are sensibly too complex for robots. See where your lines can be streamlined and made more efficient.

Of course, you can look at a large, long-term project that is more complex, but be aware that your ROI will be further away future. In either case, do consult with an automation expert. Get the best advice on what robots to use and where to place them for optimum speed, efficiency and return.

Food Processing would like to thank the following spokespeople who contributed to this article:

Katherine Nowill – Marketing manager UK & Ireland at Kuka. (
Mark Gray – UK Sales Manager at Universal Robots. (
Ron David – General manager – Central, East & North Europe at OnRobot. (
Andrew Mason – Automation manager at RARUK Automation.(

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