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Innovations coming to a factory near you

25 March 2019

Chris Unwin offers his thoughts on the what innovations will be making the biggest impact on the food industry in the coming year. 

The rise in prominence of automation is not hard to spot when you delve into the depths of manufacturing across all major sectors – it is helping improve health and safety standards, streamline manual processes and produce better quality and consistent products. New technological developments over the past couple of years suggest that these tried and tested processes could just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how automation is used to its full potential within food manufacturing.

Intelligent vehicles
The UK Government has revealed ambitious plans to have automated vehicles on the nation’s roads by 2021. Meanwhile Autonomous Intelligent Vehicles (AIVs) and Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) are now also being rolled out in warehouses across the country. 

Food manufacturers are looking at using AIVs, AGVs and robotics for a number of key tasks including moving tools, managing stock levels, shipping and within ERP systems. Following the widespread attention that automation is now receiving, I believe we will see many more FMCG suppliers recognise the benefits of these types of systems and their role in helping to improve productivity and efficiency.

While different types of vehicles have their own unique benefits and shortfalls, engineers are still working to address some of the health and safety and other concerns that automated vehicles pose. AGVs, for example, are only able to follow pre-programmed paths (using elements such as line-following technology, magnets or barcodes) so would not be suitable for environments where there are a lot of workers moving around or where the warehouse floor is crowded. 

However, the emergence of AIVs which can safely operate alongside human members of staff and can operate successfully in dynamic environments, could be the key to the more widespread deployment of these vehicles in the factory. 

Capitalising on AI
Many companies are looking to AI and robotics to help address the ‘skills shortage’ within the manufacturing sector. 

While the vehicle manufacturing sector has been successfully implementing the use of AI in its manufacturing processes for many years, this year could be the time when food manufacturers realise their ambitions and begin to implement intelligent solutions. Automated solutions, when programmed correctly, can help reduce the incidence of human error and produce more consistent product lines – this could be in the form of packaging or the product itself.

Health and safety
The potential for minimising health and safety risks for those involved in the food manufacturing process through the correct use of robotics and AI could be enormous. Utilising cobots to enable human operatives of machinery to be removed from direct contact with potentially harmful devices is only a good thing. Solutions which should be expected to become more commonplace in warehouses this year include the use of robots to safeguard humans, specifically undertaking work in hazardous or inhospitable environments.

Automated technology is often a welcome alternative to manually having to undertaken repetitive tasks, leaving human operators to focus on other elements of work that require closer attention. Automated solutions can also play a crucial role in tasks where humans are restricted through problems such as space restraints or hazardous conditions such as extreme high or low temperatures. 

The challenges
AI and robotics is constantly changing and the complexity of solutions requires vast amounts of time, collaboration, thought and testing to ensure automation performs to the best of its ability, while the goal posts for what successful automation means is constantly shifting, therefore continuous R&D is critical. 

Chris Unwin is CEO at LAC Conveyors and Automation.

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