Robotic automation: the future of food production 


There are good reasons to think we are on the cusp of a robotic revolution in food processing, explains Julian Ware, UK & Ireland Sales Manager for ABB Robotics.

Robots can answer many of the food industry’s biggest challenges. In addition, the barriers that have previously prevented many food companies from investing in robotics are also being stripped away. Taken together, these ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors look almost certain to usher in a robotic revolution in food.

Sales figures suggest that it’s already started, with the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) finding that sales to British food and beverage businesses rose by 35% in 2020, compared to 7.5% for industrial robots overall. That took the food and beverage industry to second place in terms of the number of robots installed, second only to the automotive sector. More widely, Allied Market Research reported last year that the value of robots sold into food and beverage globally is expected to grow by more than 10% every year to 2031.

Answering challenges

This growth has clearly been accelerated by the pandemic, but the underlying issues of labour shortages and rising costs remain a long-term challenge for food companies globally.

Increasingly, cobots that can work safely alongside people make mixed production and packing lines a viable option. Meanwhile, robots are becoming smarter and can be equipped with AI-based machine learning and vision systems to handle the kind of unstructured sorting, picking and intralogistics tasks that would previously have been possible only with human operators. They’ll also tackle the most boring or unpleasant tasks, improving working conditions for human operators and supporting employee recruitment and retention.

With food companies facing growing pressure from regulators and consumers to promote sustainability and a Circular Economy, the tireless, repeatable precision of robotic systems also minimises reworking and optimises waste reduction, as well as boosting product quality and food safety.

Adaptability is the other key benefit. It is becoming progressively easier to program robotic systems to carry out new tasks as production needs change. This is increasingly important for food companies looking to respond quickly to the latest trends and consumer preferences, whether that’s plant-based, free-from, or simply the latest limited-edition flavours.

Overcoming barriers

The ability to manage and apply robots more easily is a major consideration for food companies, many of which have previously been deterred from investing in automation by a lack of expertise.

Suppliers have responded with easy interfaces that can be used by those with little or no previous experience with robots. For example, ABB’s Wizard easy programming software for its cobots and small IRB 1100 industrial robot uses Blockly. This is an open-source visual coding method that presents programming language or code as interlocking blocks and allows users to program in different applications without the need for specialised training.

Developments in the field of digital twinning software, such as PickMaster Twin and RobotStudio, are also transformative. These allow users to build software simulations of a robot or series of robots and test them before making changes on the real production line. This ability to program and test new configurations offline shortens the time to market for new products, enabling users to confidently install, commission and scale up production lines without the risk of running up against unforeseen problems.

A cloud version of RobotStudio enables developers to support users in real-time from any web-enabled device around the world, while PickMaster Twin users have the option to connect the simulation directly to production operations, allowing the picking process to be optimised at almost the same time as the process is being implemented.

Again, simplified user interfaces are designed to democratise the user experience by enabling the software to be used by operators at all levels of expertise.

These and other developments in robotic automation, including the availability of dedicated hygienic options, are helping to convince a growing number of food and beverage producers to make a switch to robots.



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