Robots eat their way into the food sector

19 January 2015

To date there have been few applications that have employed robots in the food processing industry. Chris Evans, of Mitsubishi Electric, believes that this is now changing and predicts that in five years time they will be considered very much the norm.

Modern food processing industries were born out of the gradual industrialisation of traditional techniques, with automation being adopted as equipment became available. A generation ago, a food processing plant would consist of conveyors bringing ingredients to manual or mechanised workstations. 

Over the years the equipment improved and the arrival of automation, particularly PLCs, led to the integration of separate workstations into continuous processes. As computing power increased, the automated processes were optimised for lean manufacturing and constantly improving productivity.

The dominant trend in the food sector over the past five years has been a drive to reduce costs. Raw material prices have risen while consumers’ spending power has declined. However, other trends, such as the need to reduce carbon emissions, improved hygiene requirements and the development of new processes and products have also have continued.   
Food processing industries innovate in both products and processes as a matter of course, with around £1billion being spent every year on research and development, as the sector strives to meet the end-customers’ expectation of product quality, variety and availability. 

Meeting consumer demands
Meeting increasing consumer demands requires agile product changeovers and rapid product redesigns. From an engineering point of view, the needs are to reduce costs and waste and increase yields, improve ingredient handling and maximise plant usage.

For many years food processors have embraced a constant drive for improvements in production processes and productivity. They have already embraced automation and increasingly are now adopting robots.

Until recently, however, food engineers have been wary of robots. They have been considered to be expensive, complicated, unreliable and unable to provide the sort of flexibility that a team of people can achieve, in terms of learning new tasks, switching between tasks and being prepared to work irregular hours.

More recently, robots began to appear in the packaging section. This was a proving ground and it was soon seen that few if any of the assumed problems were reality. Confidence in robots started to grow and now they are increasingly spreading across the whole plant.

Food processors now realise that robots have many attributes that are particularly well suited to their industries. They are flexible and can hold multiple programs in their memory, so are able to easily switch from one job to another. They do not tire and slow down, nor do unexpected things that could compromise safety, nor breathe over foodstuffs. They do not need comfort breaks.

They can work through the night or other long hours. They are completely consistent in their movements, thus ensuring product quality and their own safety in a way that human operators cannot.

Robots, when coupled with advances in gripper technology, can now also have a very delicate touch, helping to reduce the risk of product damage.

Mitsubishi Electric has recently introduced a new family of robots – the F-Series – which is aimed at the food and other hygienic industry sectors. These robots are designed to meet IP67, allowing easy cleaning of the arm, while food safe HG1 food grade grease is used for lubrication. A clean room version is also available for ultra-hygienic requirements.

Typically, robots cost around £5 per hour to operate which is half the cost of a human. Because they can run continuously, they are also highly productive and generally offer a return on investment of around 18 months.

Companies that invest in robots will be securing their long-term future far better than those that choose to sub-contract out work.

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