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Are you ready for robots?

22 September 2023

Suzanne Gill reports on how and where robots can offer benefits in food manufacturing applications.

Image supplied courtesy Mitsubishi Electric.
Image supplied courtesy Mitsubishi Electric.

Running a small or medium-sized enterprise (SME) in the food industry has also posed engineering challenges but today’s environment of rising labour costs and skills shortages, increasing energy prices, supply chain issues and growing sustainability demands makes for even more challenges.

Could the answer lie in the adoption of robotics – which have already been proven to drive efficiency, foster sustainable growth, and provide a strong return on investment (ROI). 

“The food industry has seen increased labour costs and employee shortages, both of which hinder growth,” said Barry Weller, Mechatronics Product Manager at Mitsubishi UK. “The introduction of robotics an enhance the workforce and maximise productivity. Robots excel at handling repetitive tasks, freeing up employees to focus on higher-skilled activities. The collaboration between humans and robots can unlock efficiency, enhance output while managing labour challenges.”
It cannot be denied that in a dynamic market such as food processing, agility and flexibility of production are crucial differentiators. Programmable robots can scale production, customise product lines, and help organisations respond to market trends in a timely manner. 

Offering the example of a traditionally labour-intensive task such as portioning products like cakes, cheese, and meat, Barry argued that the use of robots can free up labour to do other processes that are harder to automate. There are also benefits of neatness of the final product that increases the shelf appeal of the product and the consistency in the position size, this often will also reduce ‘give away’ and ensure more accurate nutritional data.”

“Integrating robotics can also offer an attractive ROI. Rising recruitment and wage costs make automation more compelling. Automating labour-intensive tasks reduces costs and increases productivity. Enhanced efficiency, reduced errors, and optimised resource utilisation can contribute to the ROI. Savings and improved operational performance also enable business owners to further invest in their businesses, enabling growth opportunities.

Barry concluded: “Robotics are a catalyst for sustainable growth. Optimising operational efficiency enables waste reduction, and enhanced productivity. And, with greater control over costs and labour utilisation robotics can help drive long-term sustainability. The scalability and adaptability of robotics expands capabilities and builds a resilient foundation for success.”

Inflection point
According to Jake Norman, Sales Director at OAL, the UK food manufacturing sector is at a key inflection point, driven by the converging trends of the rapidly rising costs of raw ingredients and increasing labour costs, along with retailer net zero commitments. These trends are forcing manufacturers to look at improving efficiency to remain competitive. 

“Traditionally, the food processing sector has been slow to adopt robotic automation. Processes such as powder handling and powder weighing are still predominantly manual tasks that tend to be inaccurate, produce high levels of wastage and pose a very real risk to health and safety,” said Jake. “Technologies such as OAL’s APRIL Robotics is proving the value of automating these processes, leveraging AI to drive precision-built robotic arms to drive greater throughput, accuracy, traceability and reducing both labour costs and health and safety risks.”

Packaging solutions
Focussing on food packaging tasks, most factories follow a similar process, typically starting with box assembly, food products are boxed, sealed and then labelled. At the end of the line, the boxes tend to be palletised into larger boxes or onto pallets for transportation. 

“Every step of that process could be automated by a machine or robot,” argues Andrew Mason, Automation Sales Manager at RARUK Automation and BARA (British Automation & Robot Association) Council Member. “Currently, most of our customers combine manual and automated processes for product packaging. One customer, for example, uses human workers to pack the products into boxes, largely because a high-level quality check is also carried out at this stage. Although you could automate this process with cameras, it works well for this company to allocate their staff to that area of the otherwise fully-automated production line,” he said.

Andrew believes that the drivers for investing in automation are labour shortage issues and repetitive strain injury. He said: “With palletising, the main issue is height. For the first few layers, it may not be too difficult for a worker to move an 8kg box from a conveyor to a pallet. However, as the layers build up, the worker is at risk of muscular strain from reaching upwards repeatedly. This makes it a popular process to automate.

“In ten year’s time it is likely that automation will be more widely accessible for a broader range of applications, as technology continues to advance and becomes more affordable. This will allow food manufacturers to automate dull, dangerous stages of their production and packaging lines and assign their workers higher-value tasks,” concluded Andrew.

Transforming production
Mark Gray, UK & Ireland Country Manager at Universal Robots, has witnessed a surge in the adoption of robotic technologies in the food and beverage industry in recent years, which has transformed how food is produced, prepared and even served. “However, one of the most important ways robots are revolutionising the industry is behind the scenes, in the fields of processing and packaging,” he said. “Palletising is a necessity for most food manufacturers and the repetitive nature of this operation lends itself well to automation. Despite this, many businesses remain hesitant to adopt robotics.?The supposed ‘complexity’ of operations, and simply that many manufacturers don’t know where to start, is significantly hindering progress.”

Workplace safety is also key. Manual palletisation requires workers to bend,?lift and twist for hours on end, giving rise to the potential for long-term musculoskeletal damage.?Automation relieves workers from such health risks, reduces tedium and improves overall wellbeing, allowing employees to protect their health and focus on more meaningful tasks such as quality assurance. 

Looking ahead to the next decade, the use of robots and automation across the entire food processing and packaging ecosystem has monumental potential. Highly efficient and versatile robotic palletisers could work alongside humans employing advanced AI algorithms and machine learning to optimise pallet stacking based on factors like weight distribution, stability, and shipping requirements. Fully integrated within supply chain management systems, these technologies could ensure seamless coordination with inventory tracking and order fulfilment processes too.”

Paul Carter, Sales Manager System Automation – Robotics at FANUC UK believes that the coming years will see an increased use of cobots within food production environments. He said: “Lightweight and simple to use, cobots are becoming increasingly popular within food factories, especially where space is restricted. Slimline and with a base not much bigger than an A4 sheet of paper, they fit easily into crowded areas, such as loading/palletising environments, and can work alongside humans. Despite their size, they also lend themselves well to lifting applications, such as palletising and material handling tasks.”

Paul went on to discuss how robots could take on many of the current manual handling tasks undertaken in food factories. “While a number of the individual processes in a food factory may already be automated, in many cases, people are still required to move products from one stage to another,” he said. “Robots are ideally placed to help in these scenarios. Inherently flexible, they can easily be repurposed to cope with product changes enabling the factory to remain agile in the face of labour shortages. 

“Packing is another area which is traditionally very labour intensive. There is now a clear trend of using robots to pack ingredients into trays, trays into boxes and boxes onto pallets, freeing up human workers to carry out more value-added tasks. In the future, food factories will more closely resemble automotive factories, with robots carrying out the majority of manual handling tasks. There will also be an increased use of autonomous robot vehicles to move stock around the warehouse, and for loading/unloading.”

Paul pointed out that another area which is ripe for automating is quality control. “Robotic vision inspection systems using AI and machine learning can detect product faults quickly, accurately and reliably, helping to speed up production lines. This technology can also be used for product sorting and grading – repetitive, manual tasks are ideal for being completed by AI-powered vision-guided robots, helping to further free up valuable human employees.

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