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Robotics: Has the food sector's moment finally arrived?

31 August 2010

Hot on the heels of BARA revealing rocketing UK robot sales, Fanuc says it's felt the benefits of increased robot uptake and KUKA has released a new series, Quantec. Suddenly, there's electricity in the air. Could this be the start of a new phase in UK food manufacturing?

The British Automation & Robotics Association (BARA) recently released the results of a sales comparison report conducted by itself. It showed the first two quarters of 2010 UK robot sales had grown substantially (55%) on 2009 figures. This robot sales growth is the first of its kind since 2006 and figures suggest it will continue to accelerate throughout 2010, says BARA.

That news was followed by KUKA Robotics + Automation announcing it would be unveiling a new robot series called Quantec at an open house event. The series, says the company, covers a high payload range from 90-300kg with reaches from 2,500-3,100mm.

KUKA says its Quantec robots are up to 160kg lighter and 25% smaller, making them the most compact and powerful in their class. The range comprises four models: Ultra for payloads up to 300kg; Prime for payloads of up to 240kg; Extra for payloads up to 210kg and Pro for up to 120kg payloads.

Now Fanuc Robotics UK has joined the chorus of good news by revealing it has felt the benefit of increased uptake of robots by the food and Pharma sector during 2010.

UK sales and marketing manager, Maurice Hanley, says: “BARA’s reported 55% increase in sales is reflected in our own business in so far specific sales into the food industry have been strong. Without a doubt this is very positive and has helped to replace previously strong automotive sector sales.

“The food sector is using robots throughout the manufacturing process now – not just end of line. Flexibility of robots is becoming a core benefit as manufacturers come under increased pressure from supermarkets to meet continually changing presentation demands – these range from pack volumes to pack shape which robots can be quickly reprogrammed to manage.

“Labour is an increasing issue in the food sector and not just from the hygiene aspect. Maintaining quality of package presentation can cost suppliers dearly these days even down to aesthetics and consistency of package stacks.”

The Pharma sector currently remains less of a growth area, compared to food, with a noticeable increase but in single and not multi-robot applications. The aerospace sector has also been strong for Fanuc Robotics and together with food has supported positive growth in the business over the first six months of the year.

* BARA represents more than 40 suppliers in the field of robotics and automation and asks each member to provide a breakdown of their robot sales on a quarterly basis which are then incorporated into a regular comparisons report.

Significantly, the report has shown there have been some major changes in the sectors buying robots and applications for which they're being used. In 2010, when compared to 2006, sales of robots to automotive component suppliers showed a large fall (66%) which has in turn impacted sales of robots for arc-welding applications (down 82%).

Interestingly, the report identifies two large growth areas: food and drink (a 172% growth since 2006); and pharmaceutical, medical and healthcare (a 194% growth since 2006). These are now major sectors for robot applications in the UK and it will be interesting to see if the trend continues throughout the rest of this year.

Although the figures have injected some optimism into the industry, Mike Wilson, president of BARA, has one note of caution: “The growth both overall and in the newer sectors is very encouraging but the UK’s robot sales are still well behind other countries who are also achieving significant growth rates in 2010.”

* Pictured is an ABB robot

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