UK food and drink businesses have started investing more heavily in robotic automation. As Julian Ware, UK & Ireland Sales Manager for ABB Robotics explains, this can partly be explained by the impact of the pandemic, but new robot design options, including models suitable for high-hygiene factory areas, are also proving very persuasive.
These are interesting times for robotic automation in the UK’s food & beverage (F&B) sector with, on the one hand, many entrenched attitudes towards this technology apparently persisting and, on the other, the turmoil of the pandemic leaving manufacturers evidently much more willing to invest in dramatically different production strategies.
The British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) reports that, while overall industrial robot sales during 2020 were up 7.5 percent on 2019 figures, sales to F&B businesses rose by 35 percent. Though food manufacturers are often portrayed as laggards in the adoption of robotics, compared with other sectors, this performance took the food and beverage industry to second place – in terms of the number of robots installed – behind the high-investing automotive sector.
An online briefing held by BARA last summer, between the UK’s first and second waves of coronavirus, shed some interesting light on historic barriers to the uptake of the technology in the food & beverage (F&B) sector. Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, identified three reasons for such reluctance on the part of the industry.
The first of these was to do with access to capital for the required investment, he said. The second was more about the inevitable factory disruption that any major installation would entail, and the potential damage both to continuity of supply and to the bottom line. The third reason that Wright emphasised was more to do with perceptions among those managers making investment decisions, rather than among more technical staff.
As the BARA figures make clear, large sections of the F&B sector have found routes through the financing maze and chosen to bite the bullet on plant disruption. Arguably, the supply-chain dislocation and retrenchment experienced by many businesses during the pandemic have made other types of interruption appear easier to factor in, too. But the whole topic of how robots are perceived by those who are not necessarily experts in the field is an intriguing one.
In a survey carried out towards the end of last year on behalf of ABB, of those UK F&B manufacturers taking part, over 94 percent said their business had been affected or ‘completely impacted’ by the pandemic. Just over 70 percent said they did not currently use robotics, but a similar proportion claimed they were likely to introduce – or increase their use of – this technology, without setting a timescale on such investment.
Over 70 percent of F&B respondents also said that, in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic, they saw some of the benefits of investment in robotics and automation stemming from their ability to facilitate social distancing and help to minimise cross-contamination.
The whole question of ‘contamination’ is an interesting one and relates back to the issue of preconceptions around robotics. In fact, the reality behind many of those perceptions has shifted over time. This is most obviously true of capital cost, which has reduced dramatically over the years. It is also pertinent to the programmability of robots, where different options are now available.
ABB’s easy-programming Wizard is highly intuitive and designed with non-experts in mind. So, too, are lead-through programming devices, which are similarly accessible to manufacturing teams taking their first steps into programming.
But the theme of contamination highlights another misconception that still dogs robotics, even though – here, too – times have changed: the idea that industrial robots are not designed to be used in clean or high-hygiene environments. Clearly, if we are examining uptake among F&B manufacturers, this is a critically important issue.
In fact, for years now, many ABB robotic systems have been available in versions suitable for the cleanest food factory environments. This is in accordance with the EU’s Machinery Directive 98/37/EC, which lays down well-defined hygiene requirements for equipment in direct contact with food. Examples from ABB include the FlexPicker, which has been installed in versions rated to an IP67 ingress protection level, but also to IP69k, which is rated to withstand not only exposure to water but high-pressure, high-temperature washdown.
The process of adapting existing robots to particular types of demanding production environment is an ongoing one. Recent developments include additional protections for the small IRB 1300 industrial robot, originally launched by ABB in 2020. Each of three principle variants combines a different payload capability and reach: 11kg/900mm; 10kg/1,150mm; and 7kg/1,400mm. Earlier this year, an IP67-rated version of the robot was introduced, as was an ISO 4 cleanroom version, principally targeting the pharmaceutical and semiconductor industries.
The ISO 4 version includes features such as hygienic-standard paint, a particle filter and fully-sealed design to prevent any contamination from oil, particles or any other substance inside the unit. Even where this protection standard is not appropriate for a particular F&B application, it demonstrates the ability to tailor overall hygienic design to specific industry needs.
Traditionally, F&B manufacturers in the UK have focused their investment in robotic automation on three main areas: product pick-and-place; case and tray packing; and palletising. These types of predominantly end-of-line application have no doubt maintained their importance. But it is highly likely that the surge in demand during 2020 was also directed towards other upstream processes involving direct contact with food and ingredients.
Even those factories with the strictest protocols to enforce best practice in terms of operator hygiene and cross-contamination know that this can never be guaranteed, especially in plants with a high staff turnover. Insufficient training or supervision can also play a role here. They also know their businesses can pay a high price for lapses in hygiene, given the crippling costs and damaging publicity – not to mention the damage to relations with retail customers – that a product recall brings in its wake.
Industrial robots designed and approved for use in clean areas of the factory can help to eliminate these risks, as well as visible and less visible costs. Technology providers such as ABB are supporting this type of rethink, not only through hygienic system design but also by offering a far wider range of end-of-arm tooling (EOAT). Such tooling now includes, for instance, multi-‘finger’ grippers which mimic the human hand, not only in terms of appearance but also in their ability to sense and respond to the profile of irregularly-shaped and easily-damaged product.
Such dexterity goes ‘hand-in-hand’ with other advances that can combine with improved system hygiene to make an even stronger business case for investment. The introduction of a much wider range of collaborative robots (cobots) by automation specialists such as ABB is a case in point. Now, the company offers not only the YuMi range of cobots, with their payload limit of 0.5kg, but also – since earlier this year – the 6-axis GoFa™ CRB 15000, handling loads up to 10 times this weight. New, too, is the SWIFTi™, which delivers a payload ceiling of 4kg and speeds of up to 5m per second.
Different cobot security options for working in close proximity to human operators mean that machine and manual tasks can complement each other, wherever each is more appropriate, on the same section of the line.
During the current – and recurrent – pandemic, having operators work side-by-side with cobots can also be a way of implementing social distancing inside the factory without limiting productivity. As the above-mentioned survey results demonstrated, this is a prime concern among UK F&B manufacturers.
But the advances in – and advantages of – robotic automation do not stop here. Hygienic design, easier programming and refinements in EOAT capability can also be combined with more sophisticated vision systems, including 3D vision. Such intelligent systems are capable of assessing non-uniform food products and ingredients in real-time for everything from weight to a range of defects.
Finally, robots will often outperform human operators in terms of more than simple repeat reliability. They can also be deployed in hostile conditions such as chilled or frozen production zones, meaning that product does not need to be exposed to ambient-temperature areas where manual operations can more easily be performed. The same is true for areas associated with heat processing, or where hot items such as trays need to be handled straight out of an oven.
It appears that such technical capabilities – including machine options for high-hygiene areas – are already combining with the conditions dictated by the pandemic to convince many UK businesses of the benefits of robotic automation. Across the industry, longer-term issues to do with the cost and availability of staff have been equally influential in helping to changing minds.
Companies big and small across many parts of the sector have seen a shift in attitudes, driven by multiple considerations, that is here to stay.