Medium-sized food companies, traditionally slow to adopt high-cost robotic automation, are showing a greater willingness to invest in this technology, say suppliers.
Schubert UK now has 200 machines installed around the country, and has seen year-on-year doubling of its turnover since it was first established in 2002, says md Alan Law.
Much of that investment has come from the largest brand-owners. Law explains that the slowest line speeds catered for by its robots are around 200 items a minute, and speeds now go up to 1,440 a minute in snack foods and even 1,600 a minute in bagged products.
"Nonetheless, medium-sized companies are starting to invest in robotics, and we've tried to make our systems more competitive," says Law. "We've pretty much held our prices since 2002." At the same time, increased functionality has made it easier for manufacturers to justify expenditure, says Schubert.
David Bradford, md of supplier RTS Flexible Systems, says that the cost of a five-axis robot has dropped by nearly a quarter in recent years. But the robot component is only likely to account for 25% of the total system cost, he points out, and labour costs have risen as quickly as robot costs have fallen. "Consequently, complete systems are around 25% more expensive than they might have been 10 years ago."
But he adds: "Increased speed and flexibility make it an easier expense to justify." The integration of vision systems, in particular, means that robots can have vital quality control functions."
RTS points to research carried out by the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA) last year. This put the number of robots in the UK food and drink industries at just 340 by 2005, compared with over 10 times that number in Germany. Schubert says this is a substantial underestimate, not least because its own installations were not included. RTS claims it still gives an accurate comparative picture.
Recent Schubert installations have been at Burton's Foods, Fox's Biscuits, Cuisine de France, Dublin, Walkers and own-label tea packer Finlays.