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Robots can help break down the complexity barrier

19 July 2021

While recent statistics from the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA) show a 35% rise in the uptake of robots by UK food and beverage companies, there is still considerable scope for robotic automation to be embraced more widely throughout the sector, argues Julian Ware

One barrier to the take up of robots has been the perceived complexity of the technology and so this barrier has been addressed by developments in robot hardware and software. 

A recent survey by ABB of 1,650 global companies – spanning a range of industries, including food and beverage – has shown that misconceptions around complexity are deterring many companies from investing in robotic automation. Asked about which factors were preventing them from introducing robots to their operations, 42% of identified factors including lack of familiarity, insufficient inhouse resources and the belief that robots are too difficult to use.

This is resulting in companies missing out on benefits including improved production output, consistent quality and reduced wastage and – importantly, with growing shortages of people wanting to work on food and beverage lines – improved quality of work and job satisfaction.   

Perceived complexity
To tackle the problem of perceived complexity, robot manufacturers have worked to develop both hardware and software that takes the difficulty out of switching to robotic automation in food and beverage production lines.

Where hardware is concerned, this has seen the development of specific dedicated options for the processing, handling and packing of food and drink products. Specifically designed to meet both the hygiene and fast handling requirements inherent in food and beverage production processes, options such as fast picking Delta robots and robots for operations such as slicing and handling of raw meat are opening new options for faster, more efficient production. 

The expanding choice of cobots and robots featuring collaborative technologies that enable workers to operate in safe proximity are also presenting new possibilities. With the ongoing impact of Covid-19 still restricting the full staffing of production lines, robotic solutions such as ABB’s YuMi and GoFa cobots, that can be used safely alongside human workers are providing the portability and flexibility to fill gaps arising from sickness and social distancing requirements.

In terms of software, efforts have focused on ease of use, with particular attention devoted to creating easy user interfaces that can be used by those with little or no experience of robots. ABB’s Wizard easy programming software for its cobots and small IRB 1100 industrial robot, for example, utilises Blockly, an open-source visual coding method that presents programming language or code as interlocking blocks, which can be used to quickly create robot application programs without the need for specialized training or expertise in robot programming. 

The additional option of lead-through programming for smaller robots, where programming can be carried out by moving the arm into the required positions, is also helping to remove much of the complexity traditionally associated with setting up a robot.

Another development has been in the field of digital twinning software, such as PickMaster Twin and RobotStudio, where simulations of a robot or series of robots in a production line can be created and tested prior to a physical line being deployed in the real world. 

Ultimately, the best production scenario for any manufacturer is one that uses the speed, flexibility, efficiency and consistent performance of robots to augment the inherent skills and expertise of human workers. As robots become progressively easier to use and deploy alongside human workers, companies have the chance both to boost productivity and competitiveness and build in the resilience and adaptability to meet future changes and challenges.

Julian Ware is sales manager for ABB Robotics in the UK and Ireland.

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