The use of robotics and automation within the food preparation and processing industry has risen, and continues to rise, driven by the demand for clean and contamination free production areas. A predicted increase of some 29% by 2019 in both the food and beverage industries, indicates that articulated, industrial robots will sustain a market share of some 42%.
When we consider the tasks and activities along a food production line it’s not difficult to see why industrial robotic arms shall continue to be the favoured automated tool within food manufacture. With a higher degree of flexibility and ability to sustain repeated movements, the articulated industrial robot provides manufacturers a degree of freedom that can’t be achieved with other automated machinery; consider Cartesian robots.
Such tasks can include, but are not limited to, palletising, packing, picking and placing and processing. As a result the applications today being developed and implemented with food production are extensive, and growing as manufacturers identify more and more ways in which they are able to address both process improvements and cost savings, in what is becoming an increasingly competitive market.
One such application however does stand out above others, an end of line process that is critical to the successful, safe distribution of food items; palletising.
In 2014 some 46% of the applications within the food market were palletising cells.
Automated robotics, within a palletising cell provide a consistent repeatability, whether loading or unloading and are not hindered by weight or size constraints. There now also exists a healthy market of end effectors that can be applied to the industrial robots to further expand upon their abilities. The robot arm delivers the end effector, whether it be a gripper or a vacuum cup. It all depends on the task at hand.
And whilst the larger industrial robots are being implemented within end of line tasks, such as palletising, there also exists, within the production line, the need for smaller, lightweight robots that can deal with less demanding tasks.
Now palletising robots can perform what we would consider a physically demanding activity, with ease. The adoption of industrial robotics, certainly within this particular scenario does provide significant savings. Consider quality output (accuracy of stacking), product throughput (volume of product) and of course the human element. Such strenuous, repetitive tasks can have a detrimental effect on the wellbeing of an operative. Consider the cost implications of an RSI claim, or sick leave taken as a result of an injury received through the undertaking of non-ergonomic tasks.
The other side of the coin to consider within a food processing and production environment is the demand for clean and contamination-free production areas. End of line processes that we have referred to above might not have such stringent regulations attached to them, though the processes certainly within the production and processing of food stuffs, protocol certainly applies when it comes to hygiene.
There does exist a human element within food production that can be detrimental to the process, and that is contamination. As with the end of line palletising process that we make reference to not suiting manual intervention, a process within an environment that has hygiene constraints can also benefit when the manual handling element is removed.
Cost considerations are certainly a prominent factor, though in this instance for very different reasons. Humans can tire, they become ill, not to mention they can on occasion make mistakes.
Food handling in a processing facility means a lot of human interaction and an increased risk in contamination from airborne debris, bacteria and even airborne moisture. Replacing that manual element with an automated alternative, an industrial robot, means that quality output can be maintained whilst conforming to stringent sanitation regulations.
As more and more manufacturers within the food production arena are embracing automation as a means to support their operations, robot manufacturers are developing models specifically designed for use within sanitary environments. Waterproof variants, models that feature food compatible lubricants, developed with total hygiene at the forefront of their design, allowing them to be used in applications involving direct contact with foodstuffs.
Essentially the adoption of automated robotics within the food production arena leans towards the need to remain competitive within what is fast becoming a huge market. Consider the number of retailers who today rely on ecommerce as a means to meet demand. Online shopping is at its highest having seen online grocery shopping increase by a staggering 29% compared to last year.
Manufacturers are quickly identifying how and where within an operation they are able to achieve savings, across a number of disciplines, providing them a means to address supply versus demand, but also maintain a quality product that consumers will buy again and again.
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