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Maintaining productivity in changing times

11 September 2022

Suzanne Gill asks why and where engineers working in the food and beverage manufacturing sector should be looking to integrate robotics solutions into their processes. 

George Thompson, chairman at the British Automation & Robotics Association (BARA) has been involved in many conversations throughout his career where, when robotics is mentioned, there has been a comment made about ‘not having the budget of the automotive companies’.  “Personally, I’m not convinced that the size of the automation budget is as important as the thought process that goes on before a decision to automate is taken,” he said. “Whilst a realistic budget is important, having an open mind is equally imperative. For example, in the automotive sector, it is typically a given that to keep production costs to a minimum, automation and robotics is the key.  This means that products are designed with a ‘how can we automate this’ process from the outset. 

“Every sector has things they do exceptionally well, and things they could improve on. For me, the important thing is to network all of the sectors together and to learn from each other. I like to refer to this as cross pollination. What is the one thing that each sector has in common?  Simple, it is the desire to improve the manufacturing process by driving out excess cost. In a large proportion of applications, the easiest way is to target is waste, which can manifest itself in many forms.  It can be a quality issue or an inefficient process – the list goes on and on.”

So, engineers in the food & beverage sector need to have an open mind, when it comes to robotics and automation.  “As soon as a decision is made that automation should be considered, get as many integrators in as necessary, from a wide range of industry sectors, for some initial brainstorming.  Just because something works to some extent as a manual process, does not always mean that the same steps are needed when implementing automation,” points out Thompson. “Whether you are making a vehicle or a patisserie, sometimes a new set of eyes will see a better way of producing the end product.”

Closing the gap
According to Michael Payne, food & beverage sector manager at KUKA UK, the UK’s food & beverage industry is currently in the grip of a mini automation revolution as the number of robots being installed increases exponentially year on year. “While we may still be some way behind our European counterparts, the gap is closing rapidly,” he said. “Currently integration within the UK food & beverage sector is second only to the UK automotive industry.” 

In 2021 the compounding effects of Brexit, minimum wage increases and Covid-19 triggered an influx of food and beverage companies seeking help to automate their processes and these ‘early adopters’ are now beginning to reap the benefits. 

There are many reasons why companies may look to adopt automation – to increase throughput, reduce wage bills or reduce the risk of injury. “In the UK, until very recently, there was a belief that robots reduce the number of available jobs. Interestingly this has not been proven across Europe where more robots are being employed.”

Throughout the UK though one thing is clear, low cost, transient labour has all but dried up. “We have seen the tone of the industry shift dramatically – it is now no longer a question of improving processes. More often than not we are trying to help companies maintain productivity when they cannot find the staff to achieve this,” continued Payne. “Employees are a business’s most important asset. Valuable workers should be utilised as effectively as possible and robots continue to prove themselves as a tool to negate the dull, dark and dangerous jobs that no longer meet the expectations of a qualified UK workforce.” 

So, where within the process chain could robots be employed in the food sector? “End of line packing and palletising is probably the most common place to find a robot,” said Thompson. “As a long standing, tried and tested application, many companies see palletisation as a low risk, low cost, high return, first step into robotics. Palletisation can be considered as a ‘non-value-added task’; if you think about it, is your product more valuable because a person has packed it? probably not. 

“Many palletising systems are standardised, or are iterations of a standard solution. It doesn’t really matter what your product is – bags, boxes, tins – a few simple changes to a gripper and most palletisation systems will suit,” continued Thomson.  

Quality control
Dervish Ibrahim, international sales manager at TM Robotics, believes that food manufacturers  should seek to improve quality control throughout their production lines, particularly to meet the food industry’s demand for end-to-end traceability. “Achieving this level of traceability requires the whole line to be automated, and not just with robots – Industry 4.0 sensors, for example, can check barcodes, pressures or that lids and caps are screwed on properly.” 

In addition, Ibrahim predicts a rise in closed-loop control systems where, in theory, no human input is needed. “Instead, there is a desired outcome, say a temperature of 22.5°C and the automated system decides whether to turn up the heating, cool the room or keep the same temperature. Robots can ensure quality stays at a consistent level, with better timekeeping,” he said. 

Robots can also keep workers out of harm’s way by performing unsafe tasks, while human workers take on more meaningful responsibilities. The World Economic Forum estimates that robots will actually create more new jobs – 97 million – than they displace – 85 million. “Human judgement will always be indispensable on production lines, and robots free them up to bring greater value elsewhere,” explained Ibrahim.

Lastly, robots can also help address staff shortages. An ageing workforce has contributed to the skills shortage with 19.5% of engineers and technicians expected to retire by 2026, according to the engineering recruiter Jonathan Lee. This will leave a skills, knowledge and experience gap. Robots with easy-to-use HMIs can be beneficial in the training of new staff, and this is yet another important reason why food manufacturers should be thinking seriously about automation, and what the future holds.

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