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The rise of the robot in food processing applications

14 November 2022

Kuka discusses the rise of the robot in the food processing sector and looks at where they can offer benefits today. 

There’s a distinct ‘then’ and ‘now’ contrast in the dynamics of food processing and production. If we look as far back as the 1940’s, there was very little in the way of R&D, food packaging or equipment that was used to produce food quickly and efficiently. Globalisation of food hadn’t even been considered, food was predominantly produced locally, and much of what we ate was created in the home kitchen. There was no world wide web, no commercial TV to speak of, and no supermarket chains. Dietary philosophies and fads, and allergies weren’t even on the food radar – You ate what you were given. 

Fast forward 60 years and food manufacturing is now a complex process chain of extracting, measuring, cooking, picking, packing and palletizing. Industrial robots are, more often than not, integrated into these tasks so manufacturers can achieve savings in time, space, costs, and satisfy current day, stringent health and safety regulations whilst ultimately, satisfying huge demand for a diverse range of food products.

Gone are the days of chatting operators in hair nets, and white coats, picking and packing by hand, high volumes of single product iterations. The UK’s relationship with food has changed significantly across generations. A huge change in culture has delivered a food revolution. Shoppers are more au fait as to where their food comes from, the Internet is enabling the delivery of produce to our doorsteps at the click of a button, restaurants and celebrity chefs are showcasing the latest trends and exciting global cuisines are available on the high street.

To this end, the complexities within food processing, at the point where these products are produced, are being managed by automated applications. We reference time, space and cost savings, when in reality without the adoption of automated technologies, the food & beverage industry would certainly not be able to keep up with demand. Labour shortages and depleting skills pools have added to the challenges of high demand, with applications and technologies diversifying, to keep up with a sector that is growing faster than many, currently second behind the automotive industry.

If we look at the food & beverage industry to understand the applications into which robots are being deployed, it’s easy to see why manufacturers are becoming heavily reliant upon the technology. The sector has for some time relied upon transient labour, as a low cost solution to maintaining throughput. But, as these labour pools have become obsolete, process chains have had to diversify to ensure continuity. One such application that is labour intensive, is pick-and-place and palletising. Quite a simple application, but one that, at entry level, is easy to implement.

Some of the tasks within food processing thereafter, can be more complex and involve contact with food, ahead of packing. Above and beyond moving and stacking boxed product, some of the requirements of the food industry dictate a machine that is both safe and reliable. These can include, but are not limited to:

- Food grade robots: developed to work in direct contact with food items. NSF H1 class food-grade lubricants in all axes and energy supply systems, meaning that any contact between HO robots and food products is harmless to humans.

- High mounted apparatus: made from stainless steel that are ideally equipped for hygienically sensitive areas, such as direct contact with food, are used in fast, pick-and-place scenarios, where versatility, accuracy and repeatability are key.

- Palletising robots: designed to withstand temperatures as low as minus 30° in deep freeze storage, that are deemed too hazardous for humans to occupy for long periods of time.
Speed, consistency and high levels of repetition are a must, and robots will always win over humans in terms of efficiency. Periphery such as vision systems enable the very specific placement of products on a conveyor with precise accuracy, end-of-arm tooling affords the robot an element of dexterity for pick-and-place or inspection tasks. Whilst such activities may have been undertaken by operators, skilled workers are demanding high salaries, that when couped with cyclical training expenses, are not viable in a fiercely competitive industry.

Food quality is improving and manufacturing costs are falling thanks to automation. Quality standards inside the factory are much improved, mitigating costly recalls and driving consumer loyalty. AI big data and machine learning is being used by food processing businesses to analyse consumer behaviour and support lean manufacturing and customisation. No longer are manufacturers producing high volume, single product iterations, but low volume, high product iterations. Satisfying demand for artisan products that align with the changing tastes of a growing UK population.

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