Robots for Food and Drink


By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, Robotic Industries Association

Robotic systems are used extensively for handling bags, flow packing and packaging multi-component products like meal kits. It is common to see robots in palletizing and de-palletizing operations, and the ability to store many program variations allow users to have multiple mixed pallet specifications for their customers. In the food and beverage industry, those who most efficiently pack and ship specialty orders win.

Robot makers have responded with new products and approaches that are flexible and take the hassle out of specialty orders. The trend is so pronounced in food and beverage packaging that it is one of the top five growth areas for robotics according industry statistics from RIA. Orders in this sector (which includes consumer goods) increased 47% in 2010. (Full year statistics are available in from RIA.)

“Retailers especially like to differentiate themselves by offering unique combinations of goods on their shelves,” said Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR for Robotic Industries Association. “Volumes may rise and fall seasonally further complicating matters. Robots are designed specifically to handle variations in product and volume.”

Robot for humid food processing environments (freezers, food processing)

Robot designed for humid food processing environments, courtesy Stäubli Corporation

Robots are usually more affordable and use less space than fixed automation, plus their deployment helps eliminate repetitive motion injuries for tasks other automation can’t handle. Return on investment can often be measured in months, and unlike most dedicated machines robots can adapt easily when the product changes.

“Now we see new tooling that allows a robot to change gripper size on the fly, and many innovations in man-machine interfaces to make the robots easier to program and operate,” said Huse.

Safety concerns have driven some of the advancements in robot design. Robot makers are now producing robots that have the control reliability needed to eliminate some physical barriers. This means work cell setup is less complicated and less expensive.

“A new national robot safety standard is in the pipeline and some robot makers already have products that comply,” said Huse. “Customers will benefit from cost savings and more flexibility.”

Workplace safety is always important, but sometimes people worry more about the effect robots have on jobs. With an economy still tainted by high unemployment, why should the food industry invest in robotics?

When labor is cheap and there is no concern about staff turnover a robot may not make sense, but improvements in safety (and sanitation) often help offset those issues. For that matter, it is quite common to hear that employees are shifted to better jobs (running or maintaining robots for instance). More importantly, better efficiency and quality (hallmarks of robot systems) create a competitive advantage that can be leveraged into more business. More customers can lead to steady or increased staffing.

“Food and beverage applications will continue to grow at a dramatic pace,” said Dean Elkins, RIA Chairman and Senior General Manager of Motoman Robotics. “Also, case packing and palletizing will shine.” He predictsChina,India,BrazilandSouth Americaas hot spots for more robot sales – places not traditionally known for labor shortages or high wages.

In any country, employee turnover is one factor that helps drive demand for robots. Then there is the upside that robots can handle large loads without physical injury; robots don’t tire or call in sick, and they are used often to increase production at the end of the line. Robots also minimize risk of food contamination.

Not all countries emphasize worker safety like 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 items. People don’t do so well in damp, cold environments like freezers, so that is another great place for robots.

Some countries merely discard injured workers. In places where the penalty is high for on-the-job injuries the decision to use robots is another way to protect workers and their employers from harsh working conditions and liability.

Best of all, robots are good at handling custom orders and different pallet configurations, plus there are many choices in tooling that allow companies to respond quickly when a customer changes an order. Robots are merely tools but they solve many problems in the highly competitive food processing market.

Network with RIA members who share your interest in automation for the food industry. Join RIA today.

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