Robotics: a cure for your production headaches?

18 September 2018

Mike Wilson looks at the most common headaches faced by food & beverage companies and explains how they can be solved by the latest robotic automation technology. 

Any manufacturer wishing to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive markets must be able to make and supply products that the market wants and should be able to respond to rapid changes in consumer demand.  

In the food production section there are some particular challenges that add further pressures such as high staff turnovers coupled with issues such as product quality and safety, flexibility of production lines and financial strain. 

The challenge for SMEs in the food industry is to deliver high quality, short shelf life products quickly and efficiently. With retailers relying on their reputation of delivering the highest quality of produce on their shelves at the best possible prices, the onus is on suppliers not just to keep pace but to stay one step ahead. 

These pressures have resulted in an increased interest in robotic automation in the food sector. In the UK, a Food and Drink Federation (FDF) report, ‘Economic contribution and growth opportunities’, released in June 2017, highlighted the growing support for automation as a way of increasing competitiveness. Based on a survey of UK food and beverage producers, the report found that 73% of those surveyed were using some form of manufacturing process automation, with another 40% saying that their productivity had improved due to investing in new machinery and equipment, including robots. 

There is still more work to do, however. Conversations with various food and beverage companies have uncovered common headaches that affect production processes ¬– most of which could be either directly or indirectly solved by robotic automation.  

Inconsistent quality
In food and beverage applications, where tight margins leave little room for error, a mistake can affect not only the product being produced, but also the stock of ingredients needed to produce a replacement – pushing up the cost of production per unit and squeezing margins further.

Factors such as inattentiveness, operator boredom in repetitive processes and failure to understand instructions can all conspire to increase the risk of errors. Where mistakes occur, the potential ramifications are felt in everything from increased order turnaround times and late delivery through to lost orders as customers lose trust and look to alternative suppliers. In the most extreme cases, an error caused during production could even lead to a product recall. As most producers rely on just-in-time delivery of ingredients, rather than holding them in stock, any loss of product caused by an error can also lead to potential delays in production processes as replacement ingredients are brought in.

Sudden fluctuations in order sizes and delivery deadlines can cause problems where processes are not sufficiently flexible to deal with them. The solution has, traditionally, been to draft in temporary labour as and when necessary. Although this may provide a solution, it presents an added cost and a potential source of error, particularly where the workers brought in may be unfamiliar with the company’s products or processes. The need to change production lines quickly to handle different products can also hamper delivery times where changeover cannot be achieved quickly enough. 

Another issue is reliability. A general reluctance to invest in new technologies and machines means that many companies are hanging on to older plant, exposing themselves to an increased risk of unplanned downtime caused by failing equipment. 

Late payments are the bane of any business, impacting on cash flow and increasing uncertainty. The imbalanced nature of the supermarket/supplier relationship means that many companies may have to wait months before getting paid. This is particularly problematic for those relying on temporary workers to help meet staffing shortfalls. Uncertainties in cash flow can make it difficult to hire sufficient staff or can impair the ability to plan and can be particularly problematic when production needs to be unexpectedly ramped up. 

Robotic automation
These challenges are all steadily being addressed by the arrival of new developments in robotic technology for food and beverage applications. 

Barclays Bank’s 2015 report ‘Future-proofing UK manufacturing’ highlighted the important contribution that automation, including robots, could make to the food and beverage sector, with productivity improvements of up to 25% estimated by 2025. Robotic automation technology can help industry to achieve the highest standards of efficiency and productivity while reducing waste, as well as solving temporary staffing issues.

Many of the headaches identified earlier in this article can be either directly or indirectly solved by investing in robotic automation technology.

Bringing consistency 
Robots can solve consistency issues throughout production lines. Developments in vision inspection technology, for example, are enabling robots to quickly spot defective products that do not conform to a given specification. The robot can either miss the faulty products or halt the line until these products are removed. If a robot is used with a batch control system, it may also have a barcode scanner that can recognise a faulty set of products.

The risk of contamination in upstream processes, where raw ingredients are handled, and in mid-stream applications like stacking, can also be significantly reduced using robotic technology. 

Consistency is a key advantage of robotic automation technology, not just in terms of the quality of the end product but also in the way the product is handled from the outset. Once the robot is fully programmed, it can be left to handle a process with no risk of issues arising from unexpected alterations. A robot’s ability to switch between multiple production or packaging processes with minimal downtime required for set up provides the flexibility needed to complete orders in the shortest time. The innate flexibility of robotic technology enables different object types and shapes to be handled on a single line. 

With today’s robots offering high Mean Time between Failure (MTBF) rates, reliability is also greatly enhanced. A well-maintained and operated robot is unlikely to suffer a catastrophic failure. Furthermore, developments in technology such as remote service mean that manufacturers with a remote service agreement from their robot manufacturer can have their robot monitored remotely to spot any potential problems in advance.

Developments in offline programming means it is now possible to run a robot in a virtual process before committing it to the actual factory floor. By enabling a robot or robot system to be thoroughly tried and tested in an offline environment, software is helping eliminate the time and cost of designing and commissioning a physical installation. Although robots are unable to directly help suppliers get payment from bigger companies dictating payment schedules, they can help to reduce operational overheads by eliminating the costs associated with drafting in extra staff and other resources to handle orders. Also, because robots are less likely to make mistakes or break things, companies can realise reduced costs through decreased wastage and reprocessing of products.

At this point it is important to clarify that robotic automation is at its best when it augments, rather than replaces, a manual workforce. Robots can work around the clock and can cope with the harshest of conditions to aid workers who would otherwise be unable to reach those all-important deadlines.  

The take-up of automation technology is continuing to rise within the food and beverage industry as manufacturers turn to robots to help them achieve new breakthroughs in competitiveness and productivity through safe, hygienic and speedy automation. The continual advances in robotic automation technology, coupled with a continued fall in the cost of robotic equipment, mean there is likely to be a continued increase in take-up of robots in production and packaging processes.

Mike Wilson is business development manager for ABB Limited’s UK robotics business. He is also chairman of the British Automation & Robot Association (BARA).

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