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Is it time for a robot payroll?

12 April 2021

Mark Gray believes that, to shore up operations and boost productivity, food manufacturers need to be looking at robots. 

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It has been an incredibly busy 12 months for all food and beverage business supplying supermarkets. For an industry that was already dealing with labour shortages, Brexit and Covid-19 travel restrictions have combined to make staffing difficult. Throughout a period of unprecedented demand, social distancing requirements and a duty of care to staff on the production line have also made maintaining output levels more difficult. 

For many SMEs aiming to keep costs low, these kinds of technologies can seem out of reach. However, there is a way for food manufacturers, at all levels of the food supply chain, to begin scaling up automated processes, while keeping risk low. 

Historically, the requirement for up-front capital investment has seen many SMEs dismiss or postpone decisions around automation. But difficulties recruiting staff and the ability to lease solutions that can immediately benefit the business really has changed the game. Maybe the time has come to pay for automation on a monthly basis in just the same way that employees are recompensed. In other words, it’s time to introduce a robot payroll. 

Overcoming barriers 
Introducing a robot payroll encourages manufacturers to make better long-term decisions about how to profitably improve productivity. Scaling up with the increased use of automation establishes a base from which a company can be more competitive, whereas simply bringing in more agency workers only addresses the immediate problem. 

Comparing the costs of each option on a like-for-like basis helps to focus minds and benefits everyone as it makes the business more resilient. Leasing a cobot means there will be less capital outlay involved, and as soon as it has been programmed it can begin paying back the cost of investment, 24-hours a day. This also offers the flexibility to trial small-scale deployments in different areas of production to see where they can benefit the most from automating.

But leasing isn’t just a vehicle for A/B testing and optimising production methods. Used strategically, it provides a more attainable way of automating operations and, crucially, with much less risk. By the end of the first year, the first cobot could have paid back the cost of investment, at which point you can invest in a second unit. From there, you can repeat the process, scaling up the number of cobots exponentially year-on-year. 

Lack of robotics expertise is often another as a reason to avoid automating. But collaborative robots are much easier to program than their industrial counterparts, and it typically only takes around 30 minutes to input a new task. Ease of set up goes further than this as no expert programmer is required, after a short course staff should be able to program new tasks. 

There is an array of widely held misconceptions associated with automation and robotics. But perhaps one of the hardest connotations to avoid, is the idea that introducing automation will leave many in the industry without a job – this simply isn’t true, as cobots are designed to only take on the most dirty, dull and dangerous tasks and do not have the capabilities to replace their human counterparts. In practice, this means cobots can do the most repetitive and strenuous tasks in production, freeing up human employees to take on more value-driving work. 

The absence of cheap labour from the EU, due to the effects of Brexit, will no doubt continue to have an effect on a sector that is already under pressure as a result of Covid-related staff shortages. Automation offers a way of shoring up operations and regaining operational certainty. 

While automation is not a silver bullet for organisations looking to increase profitability, but the technology can be a powerful tool to boost productivity and efficiency. Food manufacturers must prioritise starting their journeys toward more automated operations, or risk being left behind as robotics becomes a fundamental part of food manufacturing.

Mark Gray is UK country manager at Universal Robots.

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