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Food for thought: Robotics and automation serving the food sector

29 March 2021

The developing and almost systematic use of automation and robotics is facilitating a significant shift in food manufacturing efficiencies, at a time of UK economic evolution, driven by political, national and international influencing factors. 

Whilst attributes such as COVID-19 have almost forced the hand of some manufacturers, there is now a measured realisation that robotics and automation not only address challenges such as access to low cost, skilled labour, but that the technology is in fact helping to position the UK food and beverage sector as a global industry competitor.

To the UK economy, the food and beverage manufacturing sector is the biggest, contributing almost £44 billion gross value and provides jobs for almost half a million people. Some of the challenges that the sector is facing are unsustainable that is clear, and for this reason, the adoption of robotics and automation, to continue to operate efficiently, is a means to its continued success and ultimately survival within the wider global economic footprint.

Impacts such as the introduction of the National Living Wage has led to labour being more expensive. Coupled with labour availability, demand dictates that skilled operators can demand handsome salaries, which ultimately has a negative impact upon F&B businesses revenue streams. Almost 50 percent of factory operatives are from the EU and it is estimated that the UK will need to employ another 140,000 workers by 2024 into the food and beverage sector to fill the gap that BREXIT will have left. But, could it be that manufacturers are not looking at the bigger picture? Isn’t it not so much a case that we need to replace the human operator shortfall, but that we in fact need to now start to operate differently? Manufacturing to meet demand, to meet the requirements of an ever-changing consumer dynamic, manufacturing utilising the evolving technologies at our disposal. Technologies designed to undertake specific tasks within the F&B market. Robotic process automation.

It is a complex and diverse scenario that can change in the blink of an eye, manufacturers therefore need a solution that can mirror those changes and adapt quickly. 

Robotics and automation are proven to reduce food processing costs, whilst also addressing considerations such as; food quality, security/traceability, consistency and health and safety. Within these factors automated robotic systems are delivering significant advancements in food manufacturing efficiency; reduced production costs, lower energy requirements, reductions in food waste. Their adaptive nature i.e. the ease of which they can be calibrated to undertake several different tasks at the touch of a button, means that multiple product iterations can be managed across one production line.

Traditionally robotics within the F&B industry would be utilised to attend packaging and downstream packing and palletisation tasks. The potential for primary and secondary processing (upstream) food manufacturing hasn’t featured so much in the past, due to the influx of low-cost labour to which business owners had access. These operators would be tasked with activities such as sorting, inspecting, measuring, blending etc. These are non-generic tasks that require some level of dexterity to achieve and feature heavily in any constructive process within a F&B process line.

There is a misconception that such applications, when given over to automation are both costly and complex, but this is no longer the case. Robotic technologies are ever changing, their dynamism driven by market demand. The costs associated with robotic process automation are decreasing as application specific industrial robots, tailored to the specific needs of the industry; cleanroom variants consisting of stainless-steel parts, corrosion-resistant surfaces, food-compatible lubricants etc. allowing them to be used in applications involving direct contact with foodstuffs and perfectly suited to applications requiring a sterile/hygienic environment.

COVID-19 threw the F&B sector a huge curveball, namely the introduction of social distancing measures within heavily populated operations, as are those environments associated with mass food production. Productivity levels were severely impacted and as a result, manufacturers had to think fast, many making costly changes to existing production footprints. However, there are available on the market collaborative robots that support flexible human/robot applications, whist considering social distancing constraints. Consider human operators must maintain a safe social distance of to meters, yet within that two meters it is necessary for intervention to ensure that process continues. Collaborative robots can be safely positioned between manual operators without the need to halt and re-engineer the process.

Food-ready robots – industrial robots that can be utilised across all aspects of food processing - are widely available, with specific features designed just for the F&B sector. We must embrace them and their capabilities as value-add technology, supplementing production lines that have been severely impacted recently. Their impact cannot be ignored.

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