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It’s time to embrace robotics

07 March 2022

Andy MacPherson shares his thoughts on why now is the perfect time for the food industry to invest in robotics and automation. 

From within the automation sector, one noticeable consequence of the pandemic has been a massive rise in interest in automation and robotics. Covid-19 appears to have accelerated emerging trends, many of which directly affect food manufacturing and logistics.  

For example, we have become more used to ordering customised products online and having them delivered within a few days. This can only be achieved cost-effectively by using robotics and highly automated, flexible production processes coupled with equally highly automated intralogistics fulfilment centres deploying hundreds, if not thousands, of automated pick and place devices. 

Pressure on the food sector, due to the drop in available flexible labour, is another key driver for more widespread deployment of robotics and automation solutions. Costs associated with heavy, labour-intensive operations have increased, putting additional pressure on already tight margins. By contrast, the cost of implementing automation solutions has gone down, so the potential return on investment has never been higher.

New applications have also emerged during lockdown. Festo, for example, has supplied cartesian-based robot solutions varying from a complete system no larger than a sheet of A4 size paper to applications with gantries spanning more than 30m2.  The common success factor in delivering such solutions lies in the ease with which axes can be combined with the appropriate motors and motion controllers to provide the required speed, force and precision for the task. 

Simple design solutions
In over 30 years in automation, I have never seen such pressure for rapid delivery of handling system designs.  Fortunately, Festo has been able to produce urgent design concepts for customised multi-axis handling solutions in a matter of hours using a design and selection package called Handling Guide Online (HGO). It allows us to input the application requirements in the customers’ language – such as the stroke lengths, mass to be moved etc. The HGO then looks for all possible solutions based upon feed forces, inertia and the mechanical bearing specifications and then prioritises them. Price may be the most critical factor – but so too can power requirements or safety factors.  

The models created within the HGO contain not only the simulations but also the mechanical design and bill of materials. The 3D CAD drawing is created in numerous formats simultaneously and even includes documentation for electrical wiring and programming I/O allocations. All this data seamlessly transfers into the preferred documentation software such as EPLAN. Kinematic models can be picked up within higher-level simulation packages, enabling the simulation of complete stations. The operating (PLC) program can be pre-written and virtually commissioned: all before any metal is even cut.

The time is now
While the global pandemic has been highly disruptive for the food sector, but it can also be a catalyst for positive change. Many consumers won’t return to previous buying habits now they have become used to fast online services, setting the trend for accelerated robot design and delivery in the future. 

Increased access to easy to use, free of charge software means food manufacturers and machine builders can now specify robotic handling and automation systems quickly and accurately, accelerating speed of adoption. It is time for a mindset change – from thinking that robotics and automation is complex, expensive and difficult to maintain. The reality today is that the food sector cannot afford not to automate. 

Andy MacPherson is industry manager for Food & Beverage at Festo GB.

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