A low-priced flexible robot, which is simple to programme and doesn't require specialist coding skills, is expected to receive a warm welcome by smaller food firms looking to make their first step into automation, according to the Danish company that developed it.
The robots, developed by Universal Robots in 2008 with £1M of financial support from the Danish government, were initially sold into the Danish and German manufacturing sectors. However, the company is now targeted users in UK food and drink manufacturing as well as other sectors, with up to 50 expected to be sold this year.
Although Universal Robots already has a UK distributor Letchworth-based RA Rodriguez it is actively seeking other distributors with specialist experience of the UK food manufacturing sector. "The key to our success has been to find the right dealers and distributors," said Kristian Hulgard, Universal Robots' area sales manager, with responsibility for the UK.
The Uk market
Hulgard is targeting small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), without prior experience of using robotics, because of the robots' low price and ease of use. They also don't need guarding, thanks to in-built collision protection capability. "The UK market is ready for this," he says.
Programming is simply achieved either by "drag-and-drop" icons within a touch-screen controlled graphical user interface or by manually moving the robot arm. An assistance 'wizard' enables products to be optimally palletised.
Working off a 230V mains electricity supply, robots are effectively "plug and play" devices, says Hulgard. "No-one else is using this approach," he claims.
Robots are available capable of handling payloads of 5kg, which weigh just 18kg (UR5); and 10kg (introduced in April this year), with a 25kg weight (UR10). These have reaches of 850mm and 1,300 mm respectively. While Universal Robots does not supply grippers itself, these can be added as required using the robots' input/output connections.
Prices for the UR5 work out at around euro 22,000, with the UR10 "a bit more expensive", says Hulgard. "We have a product that is far more flexible and user friendly and does not have the costs behind it that normal robots do," he adds.
Examples of the robots' use in the food sector range from the Mjólkursamsalan Akureyri dairy in Iceland, which manufactures yogurts, milk and cheese, to a system being developed by the University of Southern Denmark at Odense for packaging chicken breast and wings, which makes use of infrared positioning.
The first UR5 robot was installed at Mjólkursamsalan Akureyri in September 2011 during the modification of its cream cheese production line. This robot picks four 250g containers of cream cheese at a time from the conveyer belt and puts them onto a plastic tray. Trays are then transferred to the second robot which stacks them onto a pallet 352 trays of four pots on each pallet. The second robot was installed in February 2012.
Describing his experiences with its UR5 robots, Sigurður Rúnar, director of the Mjólkursamsalan Akureyri, said: "They are simple to operate and we do not have to build a fence around them. We estimate that they save us three man-years of monotonous work."