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Are you ready for robots?

23 March 2020

Food Processing sought some expert advice about what needs to be considered before implementing robots or cobots. 

Traditionally, food and beverage has been one of the least automated subsectors of manufacturing – due to the variety of produce handled and goods being manufactured within a single environment or production line. However, it looks like things are changing, according to a recent ING report which shows that robotic applications in food production have increased by 50% over the past five years. When you then consider the NFU’s Future of Food 2040 report which predicts that robotics will soon become a key part of the British farming landscape, it implies that those choosing not to automate may soon fall behind. 

The deployment of robots in food manufacturing has, historically, presented a host of challenges. Frail objects like vegetables, and even packaging could be easily be gripped too harshly by a robot causing it to break. However, modern end-effectors – such as smart gripper enabled robots – are changing this: these tools are suited to use with delicate goods such as foods and beverages, as they can detect item types and sizes and can adjust their grip accordingly. 

Grippers in action
An interesting robot application is the example of a Danish producer of herbs and mini plants, Rosborg Food Holding. In 2018, the business implemented end-of-arm tools from OnRobot to automate and streamline its processes and operations. “Smart, sensitive grippers are able to pick herbs without damaging them, as well as packaging them quickly and precisely. These instruments allowed Rosborg to move from an old-fashioned greenhouse to innovative business, increasing its efficiency and doubling its productivity at peak times of the year. By deploying cobots, coupled with the appropriate end-effectors, Rosborg was also able to cut down costs related to overtime and temporary staff,” said Richard Mawson, country sales manager – UK & Ireland for OnRobot. 

Human issues
One barrier to the adoption of robotics is the perception among workforces that automation, and robots in particular, will be detrimental overall to their employment prospects. “If we consider the current situation within the UK food sector, employee numbers in certain areas are currently reducing, not because of the introduction of robots, but due to a lack of available labour resource resulting from a series of factors,” explained Simon Jenkins, sales manager at Stäubli UK. “If the UK food and drink sectors are to meet the demands of our growing population, anticipated to reach 70 million by the year 2024, then either an additional 140,000 individuals will be required to work in the industry, or we must adopt greater levels of robotics and automation, with the full support of the current workforce.”

It is important to highlight to the existing workforce that the introduction of robotics will bring benefits in the form of upskilling –freeing them from many mundane repetitive tasks and training them to expand their horizons by managing and running robotic work-cells, or becoming more involved in quality and productivity related roles. The resulting productivity increases that can be realised through the introduction of robotics will both free up some operators to move to areas which still require manual decision making and dexterity, and help to alleviate the difficult issue of finding yet more labour.

“If we are to conquer both the negative perceptions of robotics and automation, and by comparison with other nations, our poor uptake of these technologies, food manufacturers should consider developing a structured educational program which can generate enthusiasm within the current workforce to embrace these technologies.” 

Oliver Selby, technical sales support engineer at FANUC UK agrees that it is important to engage the existing workforce when embarking on any robotic journey. He said: “The positive impact that robots can have on the workforce provides a strong argument in favour of widespread automation, in addition to the obvious improved productivity benefits.”

Robots take tasks, not jobs. For example, they are perfectly suited to completing repetitive and strenuous tasks, which can free up employees to undertake more skilled work. “This helps to diversify the working day, as well as making tasks which require an extra pair of hands more achievable. It also gives more responsibility to employees – putting them in charge of an element of automation. Operators who may have previously being tasked with packaging could find themselves looking after robots, increasing their skillset as a result,” continued Selby. “By looking at how automation can positively affect the day-to-day life of employees, it is evident that integrating robots into a food production environment can benefit all involved.”

Getting advice
For anyone finding it difficult to gain appropriate support and advice as they start on their robotics journey, consider talking to the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) which offers a good source of information, particularly for those looking to automate for the first time. “We would recommend talking to appropriate independent consultants as they can provide unbiased and expert advice. These consultants do charge for their expertise but getting free input from suppliers will never have the same unbiased value,” said Mike Wilson, chairman at BARA.

One key consideration for your first robotic application is how challenging and risky the project will be? With new equipment and new technologies there is always a learning curve and this should never be underestimated. It is often better to undertake a relatively simple application as a first step – find the ‘low hanging fruit’. This minimises risk and offers a good opportunity to learn about the technology. “In such applications the return on the investment may not be as good as more complex projects might show on paper, but the overall result is better,” said Wilson. “Thinking longer term; using simple projects to build the expertise and experience within the company, and moving up the learning curve, until the company and staff are ready to implement the more complex projects.”

OAL finds that many of its food industry customers are  keen to adopt robotics and take advantage of the benefits they can bring, but there is often concern about whether the company is ready for the transformation. 

“With so many areas ripe for automation, it can be difficult to know where to start,” said Jake Norman, head of sales & innovation at OAL. “We find that to achieve a return on investment within two years, the first thing to consider is where you can remove operators to reduce labour costs. We usually begin with a review of operations to find the areas where many people are doing manual tasks; if you can automate this, the labour cost reduction will soon justify the capital investment upfront.” 

According to Norman, the challenge is that people are hugely flexible and can quickly and seamlessly move from one task to another. “It can be difficult to fully understand all of the tasks that are involved in a certain operation,” he said. “For example, if you take an operator who weighs out powders to a recipe  – validating the raw materials and their quality, locating the raw material, cleaning etc, if these secondary tasks are not incorporated into the robotic solution, the system will not offer the required performance.”

In a similar vein, the data required to specify a robotic system may not be readily available. “Our robotic weighing systems need to know how many individual weighments are required per hour – for example, 40 weighments of starch at varying amounts are required every hour. Existing processes are typically paper-based, with limited digital records showing the rate and accuracy of a human operator. As paybacks are usually based on the ability to outperform the human operator, it can take time to define the existing human performance and throughputs required.”

So, the first step in a robotic journey must be to thoroughly understand the process being automated as this will form the benchmark against which future improvements may be evaluated. OAL uses Six Sigma graphical tools to understand how materials flow through the process, potentially identifying pinch points or double handling. From this, it is able to map the discrete process steps and identify the key input and output variables for each operation. “Typically, what is found is that despite being focussed on the task of weighing out, most time is spent undertaking the secondary activities,” said Norman.

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