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Robots in the food industry

11 May 2020

Food Processing spoke to Brian Cooney, general manager at Kuka Ireland, to get his thoughts on the use of robots in the food and beverage industry. 

Q: Where in the food production plant are you seeing robots providing the best solutions to traditionally difficult to solve problems?
I still believe that one of the ‘best’ use of robotics in the food industry is for the palletising of product, simply because it removes this laborious task, and associated requirement to repetitively lift heavy weights. Palletising can also provide the flexibility to handle multiple variants of product whether that be variation in the product type itself (sorting) or variations in the product packaging and dimensions. The palletising application of robotics is now quite an established technology so I wouldn’t necessarily consider the task to be a ‘difficult to solve problem.’ However, more recently, the development of high-speed vision applications, accurate conveyor tracking devices and some very clever gripper concepts, is allowing robotics to be used in applications of high product mix and ever more difficult to handle items. Of course, it is the technologies in combination that provide the solution but most importantly we are and will continue to find solutions for difficult to solve problems.

Q: Are you seeing an increase in interest in the use of collaborative robot solutions in the food industry and if so, in what type of application?
Collaborative robotics play their part in many fenceless applications throughout the food industry. Most of what I am familiar with is open fence palletising or packaging. This type of collaborative application fits into the category of ‘Speed and Separation Monitoring’ within the definitions according to ISO/TS 15066:2016(E). Many food industry applications require a high protection rating on the technology of use (for wash down and steam clean, for example). As a result, and in addition to the high speed requirements for most food production applications, the technologies developed for collaborative application are most often not suitable due to their protection rating and restrictive but safe speeds as defined in ISO/TS 15066:2016(E). Therefore, the true human robot collaboration (HRC) applications, or by definition ‘power & force limiting’ applications within the food industry are few. However, collaborative robotics remain an emerging technology for which we will continue to find new and suitable applications.

Q: We often hear food companies say that they would only consider the use of robots on lines that produce the same product all the time. Can you argue the case for the use of robotics on lines that need to offer changeover times and flexibility?
Robotics, by nature, is a flexible technology in automation primarily due to the number of axis of rotation, large working areas and capabilities to interlink with most if not all of the communication protocols currently available on the market. The robot by itself will never be the final solution, but with the addition of other technologies – for example high speed vision systems, complex and clever tooling design, automated tool changing facilities and the many more options to consider on the market – then the ability to handle shorter production runs and frequent changeovers is very achievable. The flexible nature of the technologies in combination makes the automation of high mix and low batch possible. However, the challenging task and the most important question for a customer, is ‘At what cost point does is make competitive sense?’ Our initial objective is always to assist in answering this question 

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