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Why should the food industry embrace robotics?

07 September 2020

Kevin Witheford highlights some of the biggest automation and robotic advances which are pioneering change in the food production industry. 

Innovation in robotics and automation has come a long way in recent years. It now offers the ability to manage delicate pick-and-place processes that used to be only accomplished through human labour. 

Increased efficiency and safety are not the only perks of automation. The cost of labour has been steadily rising, due to new legislation surrounding the National Living Wage. 

Factory staff are also in shorter supply and as the UK food industry still relies heavily on labour of non-UK nationals, employed primarily on temporary contracts. The uncertainty of their status due to Brexit negotiations has resulted in many non-UK nationals choosing to return to their country of origin.

Further, the presence of Covid-19 has meant that up to 10% of any remaining workers will be unavailable at any one time, due to health reasons or self-isolation protocols.The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) estimates that 140,000 more British workers will be needed by 2024 in order to compensate for this labour shortage.

An answer?
Manual production lines have suffered the most from a lack of labour, so it’s no surprise that as many as 94% of food packaging operators are currently using some form of robotics (according to the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies).

Food processors are opting for automated solutions with minimal margins of error and no downtime and robots do not need to social distance. Once manufacturers have made an initial investment in the machine itself, minimal repairs and maintenance are the only remaining costs. Ultimately, the goal of any business should be to place their valuable workforce on tasks that require skill and automate processes that are repetitive. 

There have been many recent innovations in automation for the food industry. For example, the development of advanced sensory technology can now identify odours, contaminants and pathogens during the production process. This technology ensures a high standard of quality and consistency as it enables robots to sample food with a human-like sense of taste and smell, but with the precision of a machine. Advanced sensory technology is not only useful for evaluating the freshness of ingredients, but also for identifying contaminants.

Another noteworthy achievement is automated ingredient handling solutions. This offers a more efficiency packing process, with food being weighed accurately and at high speeds. This technology works by dispensing elements into containers from a central point, and its automatic inventory management provides efficient and precise weighing and batching prior to packaging.

But perhaps the biggest advance in robotic technology for the food processing sector has been the development of more advanced grippers for picking and placing. Soft gripping has always been a challenge for robotics developers, as food manufacturers require solutions which can move products without damage or bruising. This goal has finally been achieved, and with automated solutions now available for the fast, but gentle handling of delicate food products, such as fruit and vegetables. 

Unstructured picking of products from a chaotic arrangement is also a step forward in this area. Robots can now pick products up from any placement or orientation, employing vision systems to ‘see’ where products are prior to pick up. Despite its simplicity, this solution is revolutionary as it allows for robots to perform tasks previously only possible via human labour.

Sealpac UK & Partners specialises in the creation of bespoke automated full line solutions for the food sector, which aim to streamline the production process. Recent partnerships with Cabinplant, Raytec Vision, and Pulsotronic has enabled the company to offer a range of solutions to automate initial inspection and sorting processes, make marinating efficient, improve accuracy of weighing and final quality control checks, for example.

Automation is pioneering real change in the food processing industry. It is making production lines safer, more efficient and more hygienic. Quality assurance has also improved. The latest automated X-ray inspection machinery, for example, is able to pick out imperfections more quickly and efficiently than a whole team of factory workers.

Kevin Witheford is managing director at Sealpac UK.

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