Robotic technology is increasingly being employed by companies to improve efficiency and productivity. One example is given in the food and beverage industry. By Nick Chambers, content and editorial manager; Lucian Lee, marketing communications executive, ABB
Increased productivity, higher safety standards and changing consumer demands give the Food and Beverage industry something to chew on. It was once commonplace to have long production runs of relatively limited groups of standard package sizes, but modern consumers are showing new preferences requiring facilities to deliver on-demand packaging, short production runs, mix-and-match variety packs and individualised packaging configurations.
With increased urban living and population growth, demand for eating packaged foods has increased globally. Consumers are also becoming more health conscious and demanding fresher products that require shorter delivery times and better packaging. At the same time, increasing concern for food safety is also translating into the requirement forfood and beverage products that have been untouched by human hands during processing.
When all of these factors are taken together with rising labour shortages and costs, food manufacturing needs radical changes.
Flexible Robotics Can Help
Equipment manufacturers are realising the profound impact they can have on the profitability of a food and beverage operation by the way in which they design a solution – and the smart ones are responding by thinking outside of the conventional box.
By replacing conventional machines with industrial robots, it becomes an easy task to change package styles and configurations whenever required, as well as change production lines quickly to remove unpopular products and introduce new ones. In fact, some processors these days may only have 20-40 minute runs or very short contracts to produce a particular item. A common misperception is that robots are only suitable for volume production of the same product, when in reality a robot typically has the fastest changeover once programmed and can adapt quickly to changing production contracts.
Six-axis robots provide the flexibility needed for a dynamic production environment, while sacrificing none of the speed or accuracy of conventional equipment. Robots can also drastically shorten the time between production and delivery to a retailer, thereby allowing for the sale of fresher products.
Food safety concerns regarding contamination as they move through the production process are also addressed by robotics due to the nature of automated systems and the lack of human hands touching the product.
To this point, the food and beverage industry has operated on a fairly low level of technology, and the thought of employing robotics has remained a daunting one.
Instead of a specialised piece of production equipment that requires too much training and effort to integrate, robots are in reality the masters of flexibility and should be seen as a standard item for operations that want to remain competitive.
Q B Food Trading is one such food manufacturer in Singapore that has adopted the use of robotics for its cheese production process. Through automation, the company’s daily output has grown from 40,000 portions to more than 60,000 – an impressive 60 percent increase.
The investment in machinery of about S$1 million (US$ 800,000) was partially funded by SPRING Singapore’s Capability Development Grant. The company currently exports to countries in the region such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Cambodia, with plans to expand into new markets. Across the Indian Ocean, George Weston Foods Limited (GWF) is one of Australia and New Zealand’s largest food manufacturers. The production facility in Castlemaine, Victoria is home to Australia’s largest robotic palletising system, featuring 16 palletising robots that serve 32 packaging lines.
The palletising line collects over 450 different products at the rate of about 9,000 cartons per hour. Kim Martin, GWF’s supply chain manager acknowledges that the market trend is leaning towards smaller, more shelf-ready pack sizes. “Obviously that increases the repetitiveness of the tasks the team here needed to do, therefore increasing our OHS risk as well, which is probably the main risk that we have on site,” said Mr Martin. “We have seen a huge improvement in OHS injuries associated with palletising, because we have largely eliminated that task,” he added.
Over time, robots have proven themselves critical to creating the flexible, agile and speedy solutions that today’s foodand beverage operations need to maintain relevance. Modern robotic systems can deal with speeds and situations that humans simply cannot, as well as handle things that were previously thought to be impossible to automate. They can fit into very small footprints and eliminate the conventional equipment that typically needs large, fixed spaces to work.
In short, industrial robots can now handle almost any task required by the food and beverage industry, but it takes a team of knowledgeable experts to help the process make the leap.