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How the Food & Beverage Industry has a lot to gain from robotics and automation

19 September 2022

An industry that has traditionally been reliant upon manual labour to sustain output volumes, the Food & Beverage industry has been slow in adopting robotic technologies. However, as geopolitical fallouts and the after effects of the pandemic test manufacturing resilience, the industry is coming to the realisation that automation technology is an enabler. 

And, whilst the skills shortage has been a significant driver in the adoption of automated processes in recent months, filling gaps left as skilled and low cost labour resources have depleted, there are several other challenges that manufacturers are faced with, that automation is able to assist in the efficient navigation of.

The most obvious challenge, and one that is multi-faceted is of course, consumer demand. Our savvy consumers want a variety of consistently high quality products, and they want them now. Appearance, flavour and texture are all integral to the buying process and, any deviation from that which the customer expects, and demand drops, as shall revenues. Automation can: eliminate the chances of errors, such as cross contamination; ensure that throughput remains consistent, meeting demand with reliable supply; address health and safety considerations that align with stringent food safety standards and regulations; maintain a consistent level of product integrity and quality standards.

The aforementioned reliance upon manual labour, has for many manufacturers created a perfect storm. The pandemic escalated quickly and impacts upon labour were felt early on, not only those directly affected and thus not able to work, but social distancing protocol that followed soon after. Production lines and process chains swiftly disintegrated and throughput suffered. Those businesses that recognized the impacts would likely be long term turned to automation, and in doing so not only managed to secure operational longevity, but meet demand. Those that chose to try and ride the storm have likely failed to recover.

Switching from manual to automated processes, assuming that an established process chain already exists, is not as difficult as one might imagine. Collaborative robots are able to work alongside operators safely and efficiently, without guarding, in some cases even sharing tasks, the robot undertaking the monotonous, repetitive elements. A perfect solution where dexterity and procedure would have been shared by colleagues in close proximity. Low value, high volume tasks such as palletising at end of line can be undertaken by industrial robots, programmed to execute repetitive tasks where workers might have shared a similar undertaking across multiple shifts. 

Investing in automation has for many not only enabled businesses to continue to produce, but to be competitive. Future proofing is term used to highlight supporting operational longevity. Investing in automation is one way that businesses can future proof their operations, can react to adverse market changes, or adapt when productivity is compromised. It is also seen by customers as a positive. If a food & beverage manufacturer is willing to invest in disruptive technologies, such as robots, it sends a forward thinking message. We are prepared, we can adapt, we are investing in your future. If the right tools are there to ensure a consistent, cost effective and high quality product to the customer, you are sure to stand out from the competition.

And as the sector gains momentum in light of recent geopolitical influences, reshoring and localizing production is gathering pace and condensing markets. The pandemic drove trends such as ‘pandemic kitchens’ as consumers became more tech savvy out of necessity, using smart gadgets to cook at home using cooking kits, which are today still highly sought after. As demand rose and continues to rise, the supply versus demand balance becomes more critical. The need to automate continues to increase and as such, robot manufacturers are recognizing the needs for food grade robots and operating systems, that can operate safely in close proximity to food items. With food-compatible lubricants in all axes, hygienic variants are meeting the requirements of the food industry for hygienic food handling with no compromise on product quality.

There are many applications within the food & beverage industry, at preliminary level, such as harvesting foods/products on farms for processing, processing raw meats in abattoirs, collecting eggs for onward distribution. All can, and are being automated in a bid to bridge the skills gap as a result of skilled labour shortages and to satisfy demand. End of arm tooling, vision systems, linear tracks (sometimes referred to as the seventh axis, when coupled with a six axis robot). There is an extensive range of robot periphery that can compliment an automated robot cell.

To ensure successful implantation of robotic processes, identifying where value can be best achieved is vital. Whether stacking and palletising, measuring ingredients or packing sandwiches, there has to be a why? to the how.

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