Robots on the march

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Robot Automation

Robots on the march
Growing automated army heralds a quiet revolution

Demand for robots is accelerating in food and drink manufacturing as companies recognise their benefits in process applications and end-of-line packaging duties.

According to the British Automation and Robot Association (BARA), sales of robots doubled in the first quarter of 2007, rising from six in the same period last year to 15. BARA said 46 robots were sold to the food and drink industry in 2006 although just three were purchased in 2007 for food picking operations. Most were still used in palletising.

Robot systems integrator Abar Automation also reported 20-30% annual growth, claiming it had sold 20 robots so far this year to food and drink processors.

"In the past 18 months there has been a real acceptance by the food industry of the technology," claimed sales director Brian Hill. While 90% were still used in packaging and palletising, he said there was growing interest in food processing applications.

Abar is pitching for business on two projects, using Fanuc Robotic's flexible M-430iA/2F food picking robot (see Food Manufacture, July 2007, p8) for retort loading and handling fruit and vegetables.

Hill said more work was needed to design systems specifically for food processing, but he expected this part of Abar's business to grow to around 30% of its turnover within five years.

Inspection specialist Sick (UK) is testing a camera-based system linked to robot picking operations on a hamburger bun line at an unnamed UK bakery as a final step in automated bun packing.

The quality control process consists of measuring height, volume and diameter to ensure each bun is within tolerance and checking that sesame seeds are evenly distributed on top before picking. Sick's IVC3D camera combines the flexibility of a smart camera with high-speed 3D image capture and processing.

Elsewhere, systems integrator RTS Flexible Systems has developed a high-speed robotic cell for picking and packing pots, such as yoghurt or desserts, into trays at speeds up to 160 pots a minute.

It is believed to be the first ready-made pot handling system for the food industry.

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