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Meeting demand with robotic automation

10 October 2021

Julian Ware looks at some of the trends impacting the food and beverage industry and explains how the challenges of addressing these trends can be met by developments in robotic automation. 

To meet the demands of a growing global population, food production needs to almost double by 2050. But the hidden issue is food waste. If the root causes of waste across the production and distribution process could be tackled, there would be enough food to comfortably feed a global population of nine billion. A Circular Economy – suggested by some as part of the solution – would address 30-40% of global food production lost or wasted every year. In direct contrast to the traditional economic model of take, make and waste, the Circular Economy approach seeks to minimise waste and pollution. Efforts are concentrated on maximising product value, re-purposing at the end of use and optimising water usage by driving supply chain resilience. 

Digitalisation is increasingly offering a potential solution to the problem of food waste. The capabilities of Big Data mean that when sources as varied as consumer buying patterns and smart sensor readings provide manufacturers with huge datasets, the data can be collated, analysed in detail and used to create actionable insights. This can have a significant impact in optimising food production and minimising waste by ensuring that sup-ply more closely matches demand.

Beyond data and analytics, the food and beverage industry is being further transformed by digital culture, with consumers playing an increasing role in shaping new trends. Consumers are sharing their food on social apps such as Instagram and Pinterest, pursuing authentic dining in and out of the home, and reading food blogs to discover the latest products and dining experiences. Social media has also transformed public accountability. Businesses are used to seeing consumers ‘calling out’ food and beverage brands on Twitter, their complaints occupying the same space as traditional digital marketing. As a result, manufacturers are having to become more responsive, both in terms of replying to complaints and factoring feedback into their production to help improve customer satisfaction.  

While mega-trends such as population growth and food waste will have a fundamental impact on the future of the food and beverage industry, recent consumer trends are having a more immediate impact on the sector.

Meat free
In 2018, Euromonitor reported that the alternative meat market grew 11 times faster than the actual meat market. The rise of alternative meat consumption is a prime example of a win-win scenario, benefitting both consumers and the planet. As flexitarian, vegan and vegetarian diets increase, this clearly reflects consumers’ growing awareness of the environmental impact of livestock farming, coupled with health concerns surrounding excessive red meat consumption.

Consumer interest in health and wellbeing has led to the rise of so-called functional foods. Products like these are typically marketed as being rich in nutrition with ingredients beneficial for health. This is in direct contrast to 'free-from' products which remove ingredients like gluten, lactose or sugar to address consumers needs like weight loss, allergies and intolerances.

There are significant structural changes occurring at the retail stage of the value chain. Global consumers are challenging ‘Big Food’ and the hyper/supermarket model and moving towards eCommerce and convenience formats. As well as this, consumers are demanding authentic alternatives alongside their convenience purchases.

Put simply, consumers will buy products that feel true to the story they tell about themselves. While this change is directly driven by factors like changing lifestyles, connected technologies, and urban living, it is also linked to a growing consumer sophistication and awareness of practices that are perceived to be either unethical or unsustainable.

How is robotic automation helping?
Taken together, all of these factors will increasingly require food and beverage producers to put in place flexible production processes that can respond quickly to shifts in consumer tastes and demands. From farm to fork, robotic automation can help to address this challenge. Correctly implemented, robotic automation can help to deliver several benefits including adaptability, 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. 

In terms of worker performance, the Covid-19 pandemic has had a fundamental impact across all industries, none more so than the food and beverage sector. Due to the close proximity of employees in industries such as meat processing, many companies have found themselves trying to hit production targets with a significant percentage of their workforce off work unwell or self-isolating. This, coupled with Government guidance on social distancing that have restricted the number of people who can work on production lines, has resulted in manufacturers becoming much more willing to invest in dramatically different production strategies. 

For example, the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) found that, while overall industrial robot sales during 2020 in the UK were up 7.5% on 2019 figures, sales to food and beverage businesses rose by 35%. Though food manufacturers are often portrayed as laggards in the adoption of robotics, compared with other sectors, this performance took the food and beverage industry to second place - in terms of the number of robots installed - behind the high-investing automotive sector. 

Supporting the move 
While many companies are realising the benefits of robotic automation, there are barriers to some businesses fully embracing this technology. In a recent survey of UK food producers undertaken by ABB, the main barriers to adoption were cited as:

• My employees would prefer to work with people – 42%.
• Belief that robots are too expensive and therefore the investment isn’t justified – 42%.
• Uncertainty / lack of knowledge about how robots or automation can be used in food and beverage production – 33%.

Regarding employee hesitancy, it is important to remember that the best robotic automation projects are ones that combine the inherent benefits of robots such as speed, flexibility, accuracy, and consistency, with the adaptability, imagination, and intelligence of people. When introducing robotic automation, it is important to see how robots could be used to address both the strengths and weaknesses of the workforce. The chosen solution should ideally augment their capabilities and empower them, giving them both a tool that they can use to do their job more effectively and a potential avenue for improving their skills, such as through programming the robot or working on other tasks. 

Addressing the cost of investment has been a major focus of the automation industry as of late.  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. 

In terms of uncertainty and concerns around the complexity of robotic automation, robot manufacturers have devoted considerable efforts on developing technologies and approaches 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 ex-ample, 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 specialised training or expertise in robot programming. 

Finally, in terms of technical knowledge, robots are continuing to evolve through AI, enabling robots to learn as they work on the job in hand.  Some automation companies, ABB included, are also enhancing their training and support offerings to assist with lack of in-house expertise.

Meeting future demand
The challenges of meeting the future food and beverage demand to sustain a growing population are vast and multifaceted. However, the good news is that these challenges are increasingly being matched by developments in robotic automation that are already allowing companies to take a huge stride forward in terms of increasing productivity while minimising waste.

Julian Ware is UK & Ireland Sales Manager for ABB Robotics.

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