Robotic automation supports food industry ambitions

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Julian Ware, UK & Ireland Sales Manager for ABB Robotics, explains why he expects to see the mass adoption of automation across food and beverage businesses over the next five years. 

The biggest names in the food and beverage industry have already embraced automation, with automated equipment helping them to realise new levels of flexibility, productivity and profitability. Now, these technologies are increasingly within the reach of smaller players, which is crucial in an industry that is skewed heavily towards small and medium enterprises (SMEs). Across the EU, for instance, SMEs account for 99% of the industry, according to trade body Food Drink Europe. 

There are several other industry-specific characteristics that make food businesses ripe for automation. The ever-shifting pattern of consumer tastes makes it important for food and beverage companies to be able to adapt quickly and keep pace with changing market demands. Meanwhile, recent supply-side disruptions have added to the pressure to respond rapidly in an unpredictable business environment. All this makes it essential that food companies ensure they have the most flexible systems in place that can readily adapt to evolving circumstances. 

Meanwhile, some of the biggest barriers that have previously deterred food industry operators from investing in robotic solutions have effectively been torn down, resulting in a 76% increase in robot adoption in the food and beverage industry between 2021 and 2022 (source: 2022 World Robotics report, International Federation of Robotics (IFR)). 

The first is affordability. The price of today’s systems is much lower than 20 years ago. For many cost-conscious companies – and for SMEs in particular – the increased affordability of automation technologies has recently brought them within reach for the first time.  

Of course, affordability is about more than upfront costs. Food and beverage is typically a low-margin industry, and that was historically cited as a reason that the sector was slow to invest in automation. However, the decision to automate – whether that’s a single robot or a complete solution – can unlock new levels of productivity and competitiveness. In other words, it delivers a timely return on investment, protecting tight margins and helping to ensure that companies can meet demand from their customers to deliver on time and in the right quantities. 

The spiralling cost of energy impacts the affordability equation, too. Uncertainty around energy prices means that companies are seeking ever more inventive ways to cut their bills. Advances in robot technology, including energy-saving robot controllers that can achieve energy savings of up to 20% through the inclusion of features such as power regeneration and brake energy recovery, offer scope for improved energy efficiency that can help to reduce energy costs whilst optimising performance.

Ease of use is the other traditional barrier to take a tumble. Recently there has been a step change in the ease with which operators can interact with technology. Today’s robots, for example, require comparatively little training to program and operate, thanks to innovations such as intuitive, drag-and-drop-type programming tools. These are opening new application opportunities among users who might previously have been deterred by a lack of in-house expertise.

A combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine vision is also helping robots to operate more autonomously and with far greater flexibility in applications such as product picking and intralogistics. AI-enabled robots can see, act and reason in the world around them, completing tasks too varied and complicated for traditional programmed robots. These robots engage in reinforcement learning, effectively adapting to new tasks on their own.

It’s worth mentioning one more key driver for automation that will impact food and beverage companies, as well as other key industries: While many of the challenges coming down the track over the next 20 years remain unpredictable, the impact of an ageing population is a looming challenge that companies can already see coming. With fewer young people joining the workforce as older people retire, automation is an ideal insurance policy against the impact that this will have on the availability of skills and resources. 

It is almost certain that the rate of adoption of automation in general, and robots in particular, will grow dramatically in future. The benefits of improved product quality and consistency, coupled with enhanced profitability and product throughput, provide a strong case for implementing these technologies. Meanwhile, any lingering concerns around cost or ease of use are being rapidly eroded.

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