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Robots and the food industry: where are we now?

16 September 2019

Food Processing spoke to a variety of robot suppliers to the UK food industry to get an idea about how, where and why robots are being employed today. 

FP: Where in food production plants are you seeing robots providing the best solutions to traditionally difficult to solve problems?
BARA: Robots are being used in a variety of applications. The starting point is often end-of-line packing and palletising, which are outside high-care areas and, therefore, do not require hygienic or wash down equipment. We are also seeing more robots being applied to the handling of ‘naked’ products, including primary packing –placing burgers into packs and sandwiches into skillets, and the ultrasonic cutting of cakes. Robots are also being applied to meat processing applications to optimise yield, minimise waste, increase food safety and reduce operational costs. 

Mitsubishi Electric: Robots are often found in the packaging areas of production as here regular shapes and repetitive tasks are suited to robotic solutions. However, an increasing range of robots are being designed for high-care areas of food production and handling where hygienic surfaces and high IP ratings are required. Advancing technologies in vision and gripper coordination solutions are further enhancing the robot’s capability to assemble, cut/portion and embellish food products. 

We are frequently seeing robots deployed to cut and portion food, combining either high pressure water jets or ultrasonic blades to provide accurate and clean cutting of items. We are also working with customers on food assembly projects with variable in-feed ingredients which include sandwich assembly and pre-packed salads as an example. Interpretive software using AI to learn how to manipulate irregular items efficiently is also playing a part and is likely to be more popular in future.

OAL: We have traditionally seen the greatest robotic adoption on the packaging line in the food production process as these tasks can be easily automated. However, it’s much harder to move the adoption of robots upstream into processing as these activities are not usually so repetitive or perceived to be so easily automated. Yet robots can offer significant value here, not just in terms of cost savings but also to achieve a step change in quality and traceability. 

Our investigations have revealed that weighing activities can cost up to 1% of a food manufacturer’s turnover, primarily due to associated labour costs. Our APRIL Robotic Ingredient Handling system allows the same weighing and handling tasks to be carried out more accurately, without error or waste, and at much faster rates. 

Kawasaki: We have delivered palletising robots, sorting robots and packaging robots to UK-based food manufacturers. We have also been installing new robots into many ‘front line’ applications in the food industry. 

Staubli: Areas where there are high throughput applications, and where manual operations can either be a bottleneck or other source of compromise in performance of the line overall. Other opportunities include upstream processing/handling of unpackaged product where there may be some risks with hygiene associated with manual handling of product.

Universal Robots: Collaborative robots have proven to be particularly successful in the food industry which often involves more seasonal operations. Workloads can change significantly depending on the season a specific vegetable is ready for picking, cobots provide efficient, flexible and tireless extra hands to help get the job done – without having to increase input.

RARUK Automation: With an increasing number of tools available as plug and play accessories, the capability of cobots to take on tasks that have historically been very difficult has increased. Safe, low-cost cobots are now available with force feedback, vision and other add-on tools and they have become a viable option to tackle tasks such as packing sandwiches and decorating cakes.

FP: Are you seeing an increase in interest in the use of collaborative robot solutions in the food industry - if so, in what type of application?
BARA: We are seeing a growing interest in the use of collaborative robots or ‘cobots’ for basic handling operations, such as palletising, packing, and picking and placing. The complete solution does need to be risk assessed and many cobots still need to be guarded due to the use of tools/grippers and other equipment. If guarding is required, the full benefit of taking a collaborative approach is often negated and, in such a case, the compromised performance could mean that a standard industrial robot with higher speed, precision, payload and longevity would be a better solution.

Mitsubishi Electric: We are not seeing cobots being deployed on production lines just yet. The challenge for food production is often one of increasing the speed of production and the collaborative robot is not designed to offer high speed solutions. Robots work quickly when they are on their own, and more slowly when directly assisting a human operator. 

Some customers have made tentative investments into cobots; however, these tend to be deployed in R&D areas. True collaboration, where the robot hands items to the worker or holds them while detail work is performed, is more suited to high value assembly not fast-moving conveyor feeds. Fast cycle times and long continuous operational hours in difficult environments are more suited to fully automated solutions. 

Kawasaki: It is fair to say that we are still on the early part of the cobot application curve. The challenge is not so much whether we can deliver what the customer either wants or needs, but where others draw the line between what is a cobot and a robot. Take the duAro collaborative robot, for example: it is designed to work safely and productively in the same amount of space as a human operative. It is good at precise, repetitive work, takes up the same space as its human partners, and can be moved and re-tasked easily between production lines. It is suitable for many food preparation applications, typically as part of a production line where access is difficult or the presence of noise or fumes might hinder a human operator. But there are constraints on cobots that are outside our control. These need addressing by industry as a whole before the full advantages of cobots can be realised. Part of the challenge is that although a cobot is designed to be safe, the moment you add anything that could cut, burn, crush, contaminate or otherwise harm a nearby human, it becomes a robot and not a cobot. From that point onwards it would need to comply with criteria which are applicable to robots, many of which could nullify the advantages of using a cobot in the first place. 

Staubli: We see the greatest interest in applications where the collaborative robot will be required to perform a dual role – making man-robot collaboration possible but coupled with the capability for high performance in speed, payload and precision. 
Universal Robots: We are seeing an increase in the use of cobots in the food industry, where they are mainly being used for product transfer and final packing. This can be case packing or the moving of trays of product to final packing. End of line packing has also increased with the use of flexible palletising solutions.

RARUK Automation: There is significant interest in using cobots in the food industry.  The majority are currently in dry, end-of-line areas for applications such as palletising and box loading.  In these applications, space is often at a premium, so a cobot palletiser with a very small footprint can be a cost-effective and practical solution.

FP: Can you argue the case for the use of robotics on lines that need to offer quick changeover times and flexibility?
BARA: Robots are flexible and can switch between programmes instantly. Their flexibility is only limited by the grippers/tools and the presentation of the objects to be processed. Vision solutions provide robots with the ability to accommodate different products in terms of size and shape, as well as to identify where products are. So, for example, ultrasonic cutting can be applied to different sizes of cakes with no downtime in between. Robotic packing systems can handle different products and pack formats either because they have grippers with the flexibility designed in or quick-change grippers, which can be swapped in a matter of minutes.

Mitsubishi: The use of robotics on lines that need to offer short changeover times and flexibility is ideal when variations in the task to perform are a known quantity, and can be pre-programmed in.  Batches of tray bake cakes that might vary in consistency and size from one shift to the next, for example. If there is a set number of basic types that are easily recognised; the vision system might be able to recognise the dimensions of the tray and the consistency of the contents and trigger an automatic change of cutting tool and select a cutting pattern to suit.

Likewise, an operator with a touchscreen HMI can easily change set parameters and pre-set programs, altering the number of items to be packed in a tray, fruit and vegetables picked from a moving conveyor and packed in threes or fours for example. Robots are capable of many tasks and the process of re-programming them is now easier with simple ‘teach’ routines. However, depending on the application, a gripper change for a new application or reprogramming a vision system can take time, so payback only really works with high-volume repetitive tasks. Robots can help with some short-term supply contracts typical of the food industry – when the product and the task are required – but again work better in an already highly automated environment. 

OAL: The majority of food manufacturers that we are speaking to who are looking to maximise flexibility and achieve concepts like ‘batch of one’ recognise that robotics and automation is the answer.

Some manufacturers assume that robotic engineers will be needed onsite to set up each line and make the necessary programming updates for each product changeover. However, with the right solution, this is not the case at all. The food industry needs robust systems to be self-setting for different products or ingredients and able to adapt to the changes that inevitably occur within a food facility. 

When considering how robotics solutions can handle frequent changes, the first question to answer is, how to define flexibility? In the case of the APRIL Robotic Ingredient Handling system, flexibility is defined by the number of ingredients stored and the dosing range. In this instance, the use of robotics gives us a wide operating envelope. This means that we can go from weighing out a small batch of cocoa powder to a large volume of salt in the same operation with no cross-contamination or time-consuming set-up as the robot is designed to work flexibly. The system has different programmes depending on what is needed for a given run, allowing manufacturers to adapt for a wide range of variables.  

Kawasaki: This is a bridge we have crossed many times in the food industry. Production teams can readily see the advantages of employing robotic assistance in parts of their processes, but it is quite common for their bosses to make the (often incorrect) assumption that a robot is a one-trick-pony that doesn’t possess either flexibility or built-in growth and multi-tasking potential. Careful selection of the right machinery can ‘future-proof’ a robot installation, allowing users to gain more from it as time passes.  Often it isn’t the robot itself that presents ‘flexibility’ or growth challenges, it is the structure and processes that a manufacturer already has in place that can inhibit the advantages of any kind of automation. There have been cases where no matter how efficient or flexible a robot could be, we have determined that installing one might not actually be what was needed at the time because it would be ‘held back’ by other parts of the operation. So, when the question of ‘flexibility’ or multi-tasking across different production runs is raised, we are always keen to fully understand the complete customer picture first. 

Staubli: The ongoing development of end effectors, sensing technologies, machine vision and the robot arms and controllers themselves, mean that today’s robots can be configured to operate highly effectively on short batch runs. These are equally capable of operating in a mixed batch environment, where more than one product is being presented at the same time. Using machine vision to identify different variants allows the robot to make appropriate decisions on how to handle each product. 

Universal Robots: Cobots were developed from the ground up for ease-of-use and flexibility. Due to their size, simplicity and ability to be easily redeployed they can be moved around the factory floor to wherever they bring the best value. This is why cobots have become the go-to automation solution for SMEs that produce highly bespoke products, where the production line may change from day to day.

RARUK Automation: The beauty of cobots is that they can quickly and easily be installed, and as such, they can also easily be moved and redeployed and programming is intuitive. Of course risk assessments are needed for each deployment, together with the ability to amend or select programs set at various security levels to ensure that employees only have access to the level of work that they are trained for.  For example, operators being able to select the relevant program while maintenance or process engineers can make minor amendments to programs.  Any changes to safety settings can be restricted even further if required.

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?
BARA: There are a number of challenges, but the main one is probably a lack of experience and expertise within the food industry to identify and specify solutions that both meet needs and are achievable for a reasonable investment. A further challenge is the very short-term approach to investment that many companies take. There are many applications that can be successfully automated and an increasing need, due to labour shortages, for these to be realised. Senior executives must drive their engineering teams to make these investments and to work with suppliers to provide solutions.

Mitsubishi: Return on investment expectations is the main barrier to the wholesale adoption of robots in the food industry. The expectation is for an ROI of 12 months or less, which is hard to achieve for what is still a high value item working on low unit cost items. Rental agreements are becoming more popular and the cost of robot set-up and integration is coming down, so uptake for the right application is still strong. The cost of labour also plays a part in this dynamic.

A general trend towards traceability, data capture and detailed analysis of production efficiencies is also working strongly in favour of automated solutions in general. The level to which a robot can integrate into a fully or semi-automated process is increasingly becoming the deciding factor when choosing to integrate robotics into food and beverage production. This is where we see significant growth in robot uptake stimulated by market requirements.

OAL: The biggest barrier to the use of robots in the food industry is risk aversion. While robotics often require a significant investment upfront, the savings that can be made in the long term are huge. Yet it’s difficult to get buy-in when food manufacturers are facing such a challenging environment, from labour shortages to raw materials prices and retailer pressure.  

The way we try to overcome this risk aversion is by conducting system studies. For a small initial investment, food manufacturers can trial their processes on our test equipment, allowing us to demonstrate a realistic figure for the return on investment they are likely to achieve. This makes the whole process easier because it makes the financial justification easier when there is a clear roadmap for payback.

Kawasaki: We haven’t found the thinking in the food industry to be much different to the many other manufacturing sectors we serve. Fundamentally, the considerations taken and decisions made are not dissimilar to those we experience in other sectors seeking to invest in automation and robotics to fuel growth. Clearly, some food industry applications may have hygiene, cleaning, washdown or contaminant considerations but otherwise I don’t think there are any special barriers to the use of robotics in the food industry. 

Staubli: There are several perceived barriers to automation in this sector. The duration or security of the contract between the food manufacturer and the retailer, for example. This, together with a traditional short-term view on payback on capital projects, is often cited as a reason to avoid capital investment in new equipment or technology such as robotics or automation. 

Taking an alternative view, either on the duration of the payback period and/or considering flexible financing options such as hire or leasing, may open the door to the introduction of the technology that could potentially transform productivity levels. Improvements as a result of this investment may actually contribute to the security of the contract.

The flexibility of robots allows them to be used for new products or new contracts and their inherent reliability means that they will provide years of service. Having technology in place when bidding for new contracts can also differentiate suppliers and provide a competitive advantage. Also, companies with a long-established heritage and who manufacture products with a ‘traditional’ reputation may be steering away from the latest technology for fear of losing their long-established reputation for tradition and quality. 

Failing to embrace the opportunities that robotics and automation can bring could result in higher costs and lower productivity and yields. For food products, the tradition is often in the recipe, not in the way the product is handled. For many, the introduction of a cobot may be the answer – the craftsman is still there but output can be more consistent and productivity also improves - man and machine in perfect harmony.

Universal Robots: Some of the biggest barriers to robots being used more in the food industry include the need for clean down ratings on the robot, the acceptance of robots in the workplace in an industry that is typically not highly automated, and the lack of investment in equipment. Cobots overcome many of these arguments as they can be moved out of the work area to be cleaned without jet washing, can work alongside employees safely and provide a quick payback usually in less than 12-months.

RARUK Automation: We are currently seeing labour shortages across the UK, which is resulting in more thought and consideration being given to automation, but uptake is still slow.  From a technical standpoint, the food industry offers unique challenges around the environment that robots need to operate in.  At this time, robots are still limited to dry areas away from food contact.  The upscaling of IP ratings, food-safe materials and lubricants, and accessories that improve the robots ability to withstand such an environment, are key to overcoming these barriers.

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

John Rowley, technical sales manager (Food & Beverage Industry) Automation Systems Division at Mitsubishi Electric UK.
Jake Norman, head of sales at OAL.
Mark Gray, UK sales manager at Universal Robots.
Ian Hensman, sales manager at Kawasaki Robotics. 
Craig Forrester, divisional manager at Staubli UK.
Peter Williamson, managing director at RARUK Automation.
Mike Wilson, chairman of the British Robotics & Automation Association (BARA).

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