By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, RIA
At RIA, we received a media request from an editor in India who was looking for input on the use of robots in the food and beverage industry. This is a copy of my response…
What role robotics can play in F&B industry?
Robotic systems are used extensively for handling bags, flow packing and packaging / kitting. They minimize risk of contamination in upstream processes where raw ingredients are handled, as well in mid-stream applications like stacking and assembling food parts. (Pepperidge Farm uses delta robots to assemble cookies, for instance, and they even program their robots to be a bit imperfect in this task to help maintain a hand-made appearance.)
Which are the main areas of applications of robotics in F&B industry? What are emerging trends in food robotics – globally?
It is common to see robots in palletizing and de-palletizing operations, and the ability to store many programs allow users to have multiple mixed pallet specifications for their customers. This means almost no downtime to change from one requirement to another. Robots are moving into upstream applications for cutting and trimming meat and poultry although this is still a small share of the work they do. This trend seems more common in Australia and Europe than in the U.S.
With the economy still struggling with recession and joblessness, why should the food industry consider investing in robotics?
It is quite common to hear that employees are shifted to better jobs (running or maintaining robots for instance), and better efficiency and quality achieved by robots results in more customers for a company which can lead to steady or increased staffing. As a company gains more accounts thanks to gains in efficiency and quality it ensures a more competitive place in the market thus protecting jobs. The justification is much harder when labor is cheap and there is no concern about staff turnover, but in many cases improvements in safety (and sanitation) help offset those issues. Companies that use robots can use people to do more strategic work and leave the drudgery to machines.
What is driving the usage (the demand) of robotics in food applications?
In countries like Australia and places in Europe staff turnover helps drive demand, as do improvements in quality and time-to-market. The same is true of America, however, upstream applications (slaughterhouse) are very traditional and acceptance at that level is still relatively low. However, robots can handle large loads without physical injury (unlike human counterparts who lift objects all day); robots don’t tire or call in sick, and are used often to increase production at the end of the line. Health and safety issues are big drivers in the U.S. The cost of injured workers in America can be very high and robots help minimize that by taking on the heavy lifting of pallets or large, heavy, awkward foodstuff. People don’t do so well in damp, cold environments like freezers, so that is another great place for robots.
Outlook for robotics with regard to F&B applications
In America the potential for robots in food and beverage applications is quite big. The same is true in other countries, although the drivers are different depending on health and safety regulations as well as pay rates and availability of laborers. Australia seems to be one of the leaders in applying robots to cutting and trimming of protein (lamb chops for instance). High-speed picking can be a deterrent to robotics for containers, but palletizing of beverages is a well-established application for robots. Delta robots are making great headway in the handling of frozen foods, confections and to some degree protein (meat, poultry and fish). Larger, multi-axis robots are likely to keep expanding for end-of-line applications. Some are even used for egg and chick handling. In a different but related note, there is a growth market for milking robots which has caught on quite well especially in eastern regions of the U.S. (DeLaval and Lely are notable leaders in this market.) A dirty, unstructured environment – even a barn – is not a deterrent to the use of robots. In fact, they thrive in severe conditions.
Leave a comment to tell us if you agree or disagree with these statements. Please help us understand the view of people in the food and beverage industry.
With kind regards,
Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & Public Relations