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Robot-assisted workflows aid production agility

22 January 2021

Robert Brooks explains how robot-assisted production and packaging solutions can help create more flexible, agile food factories. 

Food producers today are having to juggle between longer-term range proliferation centred on consumer demands; and SKU reductions caused by rapidly changing buying habits, challenges that have been exacerbated by the ongoing global pandemic. 

These changing demands have required producers to become even more agile with their existing assets. The challenge is to create a flexible, continuous production process for customer-specific manufacturing and to minimise costly, rigid and maintenance-intensive conveyor sequences, which usually takes up  considerable space. And for this reason autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and collaborative robots (cobots), as well as traditional industrial robots are finding increasing applications in food factories – replacing conveyor belts or accumulation/buffer stations to ensure greater flexibility. 

A recent Mintel report identified three key food and beverage trends that are likely to take hold by 2030:

? Developments such as sustainable nutrition and increasingly informed consumers
? The growing importance of food science and modern technology in manufacturing
? Optimisation of factory performance by controlling the flow of goods in the production and storage areas

An important question in this context is: how can a project be realised cost-effectively and with a realistic return on investment (ROI)? A key focus must be on smart production and packaging lines that can be easily reconfigured to meet changing needs. Again, robots can offer a solution – easily configurable production lines will ideally consist of collaborative and flexible transport and transfer solutions, tailored to specific production environments. Examples include robots, AMRs, cobots and more recently solutions that combine two. 

Tasks include the transport of work in progress (WIP) stock between sites or adjacent areas, with the process being managed and controlled by a special fleet management solution. Reconfigurable systems in the food industry link assets and reduce costs by storing only what’s needed on the route. Traceability of all stock levels also reduces downtime. 

To avoid production downtimes, line side replenishment (LSR) must take place in good time, with a focus on the loading of raw materials, packaging of containers and the dispensing of finished goods. Palletisers play a central role here, enhancing productivity, flexibility and traceability of the production process. Robotic solutions can help to improve throughput in these areas. Examples include a SCARA (Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm) solution for loading bottles or other containers, robots that load carton and case erectors and high-speed parallel robot solutions for the orientation and alignment of raw materials and primary/secondary packaged items. Traceability within the process can be ensured by reading and verifying item level and batch level labelling using integrated image processing systems.

Dispatch and shipping
The handling and dispatching of goods is also undergoing change, as retailers strive to reduce costs in this area. Delivering retail-ready solutions and avoiding costly fines can be complicated. Here, automation can help protect the product and improve the OEE of a machine or line by reducing downtime. At the primary packaging stage, where fast, accurate, repeatable and efficient handling is required, Delta robots can offer a good solution. 

Product-friendly conveyor control can be achieved by the automatic positioning of the goods on a conveyor. Omron's Sysmac control platform, for example, features Smart Conveyor Function Blocks (FBs) that control the distances and positioning of products, reducing product damage and improving throughput.

The automated flow of goods and optimised loading and unloading of machines will play a central role in the food factory of the future. Companies that want to speed up processes, reduce costs and ease the burden on employees can do so with the help of innovative technology and robotics.

Robert Brooks is industry manager food and beverage at Omron Europe. 

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