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The transformation effect of cobots

11 March 2019

Food Processing finds out more about the transformation effect that the new breed of robots is having throughout food and beverage production. 

From the first robot-run lettuce farm in the world – producing 30,000 heads of lettuce a day – through to novel robotic fruit-picking systems capable of distinguishing between apples and oranges, automation is now making it possible to optimise productivity all along the food chain. The range of opportunities – commercial as well as technical – is accelerating fast.

Robots are well suited to repetitive tasks involving tiring and strenuous work throughout the food industry in both processing and packaging applications. Collaborative robots (cobots) take this efficiency-building capability one step further, because they can be placed side-by-side with the human workforce, with no need for costly and space-hungry safety cages and protective equipment. 

Whether scanning, stacking eggs, spraying bread rolls, or packing food in cartons, cobots are at the forefront of the ongoing transformation of food industry processes and logistics. They become the third helping hand in production, configured to take on repetitive, physically demanding work and give staff time and space for more interesting, varied tasks where their unique human capabilities and hands-on practical experience can add greater value.

Cobots make it easier and cheaper to work in small batches, configuring specifications to individual customer requirements and changing market preferences within the food industry, in retail, and logistics as well as at consumer level. They also make it possible to achieve greater consistency, with less spoilage and better quality, which in turn can help tweak profit margins.

Robot arms such as the Universal Robots UR3, UR5, and UR10 are relatively inexpensive, with only limited capital outlays involved, while their small size and light weight, along with their simple programming, enables them to be used for a varied range of applications.

Designed for delicacy
In the food industry, the quality of the raw materials and ingredients are important, and the consistency and gentleness of all their subsequent processing and handling is often just as important for maintaining that quality. Gripping and moving already packaged food and its preparation for transport also requires delicacy of touch and precision – criteria that can easily be met by cobots.

Cobots have also proved to be useful in food industry working environments that feature special climatic or hygienic conditions. Robots are available that can work unhindered in temperatures ranging from 0°C to 50°C, and which can perform faultlessly in low-oxygen environments that would require complex equipment for human staff. Robots can also be hermetically sealed and provided with a smooth outer housing designed to avoid collecting dust or other deposits, making them suitable for use in food processing setups where high hygiene standards are important.

Sugar in Sweden
Swedish sugar producer Nordic Sugar is one of the food manufacturers automating an especially repetitive task; three cobots from Universal Robots now assist in inspecting samples during the main production time. They use a gripper to lift around 45,000 containers with sugar beet samples from a scale, and scan their bar codes. The manpower savings achieved in the previously manual aspects of this process enable Nordic Sugar staff to concentrate more on process optimisation, and to boost overall efficiency.

Eggs in Italy
The Cascina Italia company in Italy has to pack more than 2.5 million eggs every single day. To achieve this, it uses a UR5 robot with pneumatically controlled grippers for stacking cartons containing 10 eggs each into boxes that then each hold 1,440 eggs. This all adds up to the robot packing about 15,000 eggs per hour.

Universal Robots kicked off its UK Cobot Automation Tour of 2019 in Oxford, offering attendees the chance to learn how to best adopt collaborative robots for business automation. Participants further get a chance to ask questions directly from industry experts as well as get their hands on a real-life cobot. The tour will continue until mid-July with stops in Manchester, Newcastle, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Southampton and is completely free of charge. To find your nearest event and register, Click here.

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