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Robotic automation can help address the skills gap

29 November 2021

An industry such as food & beverage is by default both fast-moving and dynamic, owing to several influencing factors such as consumer demand and dietary trends. The ability to maintain consistency of output is critical. 

There can be no escaping the skills gap that presents many industries with challenges along their process chains that ultimately impact both bottom lines and an ability to remain competitive.

Though whilst possessing an ability to maintain a supply versus demand balance, the inability to control product quality delivers a host of consequences that can be disastrous.

Challenges associated with sourcing, training, and retaining labour have been spoken about at length, and the food and beverage industry has suffered significantly, because of the impacts of COVID and BREXIT. The necessity to adopt automated processes has never been so essential.

Lockdown meant UK consumers were stuck at home throughout 2020, and an explosion in the utilisation of e-commerce platforms to source food items saw staffing and supply chains reach a breaking point. As such, manufacturers had to look at how they could sustain operational continuity when faced with some of the biggest challenges the industry has faced in years.

When we contextualise the UK manufacturing environment within the global food and beverage arena, the adoption of automated manufacturing principles, those featuring robotics, are well below those levels that are seen in Europe. But attitudes are changing, and the benefits that can be afforded through robot process automation are being realised across the industry. But for those manufacturers who insist on chasing lower-cost labour and do not focus upon the potential of improving their processes through the integration of robotic technology, the future is not assured.

Demand is unlikely to diminish anytime soon if anything, the opposite. As diet diversity and consumer trends dictate that an ability to react and adapt output volumes and iterations at a moment’s notice, flexibility along a process chain must be omnipresent. If not, several aspects shall be impacted, not least of all output.

But product integrity is paramount, especially so in the food & beverage industry, considering quality standards and health and safety constraints. Sub-standard iterations just don’t cut the mustard.

Due to the nature of the transient workforce maintaining quality has become an ever-increasing issue for manufacturers in the food & beverage industry. Training new personnel on production processes only to see them move on after short durations are driving costs up, costs that could be applied to the integration of automation of processes previously thought to be either too difficult and/or cost-prohibitive to achieve. But this is no longer the case. 

Almost any manual process can be automated, and within the food & beverage industry, these are/were extensive. From picking and packing to palletising, weighing, and measuring to handling food items.

Automated end of line packing and palletising applications ensure boxes are consistently and accurately packed, eliminating any potential for tipping whilst in transit; High-speed picking/handling applications upstream ensure consistency and accuracy of product movement, attended by a DELTA robot variant, for example, eliminating picking errors; Sensitive robots can undertake weighing and measuring exercises, close to humans, eliminating the potential for cross-contamination and waste. The potential for automation knows no bounds when applied in the right areas and for the right reasons. 

The argument for future-proofing operations through the utilisation of automation is a strong one. Longevity can only be achieved through operational resilience, and the ability to provide consumers with high-quality products. Resilience can only be achieved by adopting automation and aligning operations with industrial technologies as they evolve.

Consumer demand is driving turnkey solutions making it easier for systems to work together and share information and control in a prescribed way. Fully connected factories that operate off big data, tracking peaks, troughs, and trends that can then be fed back into production systems allowing manufacturers to reduce waste and have full traceability and visibility across their process chain.

Quality standards are being forced by end-users as manufacturers strive to provide the very best in production capability. Robotics and automation are empowering those who wish to retain competitive advantage, driving costs and operational complexities down, whilst addressing key considerations such as quality and output.

And those solutions that do exist are not beyond reach, for any business. Access to robotics can be achieved through several means, such as asset rental or leasing, eliminating any large capital expenditure.

Product quality is king within the food & beverage industry and as realisation dawns that a once affluent low-cost labour pool no longer exists, the need to automate is now a reality. The supply chain is difficult under normal circumstances, but the current climate is making planning extremely difficult.

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