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Weighing up robot challenges

22 March 2021

Are robots able to meet the challenges posed by today’s food processing applications? Complex processes; hygiene; extreme environments; organic product handling; working alongside human operators? Jake Norman thinks they are! 

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Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic most food manufacturers have had to meet increased demand, with fewer people, while also implementing social distancing measures to protect staff. It has become clear that the use of robotics can help companies deliver their volumes and keep their people safe. 

Robotics and automation allow food manufacturers to move away from an over-reliance on labour, which has, traditionally, been a key characteristic of this industry. With challenges such as Brexit in the UK, as well as rising labour costs, alongside the safety issues brought to the fore by Covid-19, a shift to greater adoption of automation and robotics would bring huge benefits to the bottom line, as well as operator safety. 

Robotic and automated solutions for the packaging line are widespread but it is in operations upstream where some of the greatest opportunities for both savings, safety and increased productivity can be found. The benefits offered by robotics in the difficult circumstances heightened by the pandemic has offered a great opportunity for manufacturers to take advantage of technology that might have been delayed in the past, due to budget constraints or competing priorities. 

OAL has, for example, seen an increase in demand for robotic weighing solutions – an area of food manufacturing that is particularly labour-intensive and which has, traditionally, been considered to be too complex to automate as operators can offer maximum flexibility when it comes to weighing out powders to a recipe and adapting to switches in production in the fast-paced food industry. 

Achieving total flexibility
It is already widely accepted that bulk ingredients can be handled efficiently using silos and big bag systems, but when it comes to micro or minor ingredients there remains a tendency to rely on human operators to undertake often arduous weighing tasks in harsh and dusty environments – damaging their health and incurring significant costs. However, today robot technology has evolved and it is possible to move robotics upstream to offer total flexibility of weighing and ingredient handling operations, allowing manufacturers to automate the same tasks that operators have traditionally completed. Automation bring with it much greater accuracies, without error or waste, and much faster rates. This can transform productivity levels, allowing manufacturers to become much more competitive. What’s more, as only one person is required to operate the system, social distancing becomes easier and as the operator is removed from the task, their health is protected as dust inhalation is no longer a significant risk. Finally, human error is reduced, traceability is increased and labour costs are substantially decreased, boosting the bottom line. 

Combining robotics and advanced automation, the APRIL Robotics Ingredient Handling system can offer an accurate, cost-effective and scalable weighing solution. The APRIL Robotics Ingredient Handling system promises high flexibility and can be integrated into existing facilities. The system has already proven that all powdered ingredients – whether they are cohesive, like egg powder, or free-flowing, like salt – can be measured accurately every time.

Jake Norman is head of sales & innovation at OAL.

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