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Capacity management in the food & beverage industry: The arguments for robotics & automation

10 October 2021

There is no escaping the fact that huge gaps have been left along process chains, as a result of BREXIT and the COVID-19 pandemic, across several industry sectors, including the food & beverage industry. The technological solutions that can potentially solve many of the challenges that are perpetually presenting themselves are abundant, though the knowledge of how best to utilise these technologies is still very much at its inception. 

Historically the primary need to automate within the food & beverage industry was driven by considerations such as health and safety, with applications such as palletising, packing and stacking being consigned to automated robotics.  

Post BREXIT, the skills dynamic has shifted significantly, as low-cost labour pools dry up as migrant workers return to Europe, dramatically impacting operations across the sector. With this loss of manual input along process chains, business owners are quickly realising that the shift to automated technology, to sustain operational continuity, is now a serious consideration. 

Changing consumer tastes and behaviours are driving a diversity of product iteration not seen before, with trends such as veganism & vegetarianism and food intolerances and allergies meaning food manufacturers face the huge challenge of catering for different demographics simultaneously; a challenge in itself. 

Much of those processes that exist within a food production environment, that require both a level of skill and dexterity, do so up-stream, in applications such as weighing, measuring, batch processing and ingredient preparation, to name but a few. Such processes require a level of accuracy and repeatability to sustain product integrity output.  

According to the?United Nations, food production has to increase by almost 70% by 2050 to feed the 9.7 billion people that could be living on the planet by then. To meet this challenge, not only will more food need to be produced, but the food & beverage industry will have to greatly improve efficiencies so that the increased volume of food can be efficiently produced. In order to meet such a colossal challenge and to ensure that such efficiencies can be achieved, robotics and automation is the only logical answer to the question of how to sustain such an increase in demand. 

The food & beverage industry is one that has been around for generations; a legacy industry established to meet the growing demands of a population that has increased in size year on year. Many legacy industries are now struggling to recruit skilled operators, as the desire to embrace traditional manufacturing trades as a career choice diminishes, and technology-driven industries become ever more favoured. Consider welding, as an example. Robotics is enabling manufacturers to bridge the skills gap; employing robot programmers who then utilise robot technology to undertake the task, supporting business continuity and sustaining output. The same principles are being witnessed across industry, including the food & beverage sector. 

Advances in robotic technology are making it much easier for manufacturers to automate processes. There is of course though, the question of where to apply automated robotics, which only a careful and analytical analysis of existing processes can establish. Qualitive criteria such as data analytics – Where might operational processes be optimised? Have there been any shortfalls in throughput for which a robotic application might be beneficial? Are there any quality considerations, such as accuracy or repeatability of tasks? There is a plethora of improvement potential within any given environment, though these can quickly be identified via a simple ‘walk the floor’ exercise conducted with the support of an automation expert. 

As the acceleration of industry 4.0 and digitiisation starts to reshape the manufacturing landscape, business owners, especially at SME level, must adapt in order to remain competitive. Innovation is a huge draw for end users and should be utilised as a USP by business owners. Lean manufacturing principles are being applied across multiple industry sectors as manufacturers strive to achieve competitive advantage and address quickly and efficiently changing market dynamics. Robotics and automation can be quickly reconfigured across multiple, pre-defined applications, according to the needs of the operation and without impacting throughput, thus supporting output continuity. 

The existing robotic technology designed specifically for use in the food & beverage industry is extensive*: automatic format adjustment, vision systems, corrosion-resistant surfaces, food-compatible lubricants, stainless-steel parts for the highest level of hygiene, sensitive robotics, high payload robots designed for extreme subzero environments, lightweight & fast low payload robots all which address those key features required by manufacturers operating within this high-speed sector, being hygiene, health & safety, high precision and speed. 

So as the global population and demand for a wide range of food items increases, pressures upon supply chains also increase. The UK food & beverage industry is valued at more than £100 billion and is the biggest manufacturing sector in the UK. There exists such an opportunity to expand into new global markets, but to do so, we as a manufacturing nation have to be more open minded to the benefits that robotics and automation can deliver. 

*Features quoted are non-exhaustive. 

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