A National Health Service for robots

By John Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food industry Robot Industry

A National Health Service for robots
Is Britain's food and drink industry ready for robotics? A new initiative is helping companies along the path to automation, reports John Dunn

Last year, Britain's food and drink companies installed around 100 robots. That's a sixth of the total number sold into the UK in 2007, says Dr Ken Young, head of the British Automation and Robots Association (BARA), which compiles the figures. "That is quite a large percentage compared to what it used to be. The food industry is doing quite well for robots at the moment."

Hmm. According to the same figures, in 2007 Germany installed 15,300 robots, and the UK just 636. Not every robot firm supplies its sales figures to BARA, so the true UK total is probably more like 700 robots, it is suggested. Even so, that figure of 100 robots doesn't seem quite so impressive anymore, particularly since the food and drink sector is Britain's largest manufacturing industry. It is bigger than the automotive industry which, according to Young, installed around 200 robots last year.

Nevertheless, Young is optimistic for the food and drink industry. "Picking, packaging and palletising are the three main areas where robots are hitting the food industry. The big driver is the lack of availability and reliability of labour." Also, he says, the price of robots has come down as the cost of labour has gone up.

So, with only 100 robots sold into the food industry last year, what is the problem? In Young's view, it is ignorance within the food industry about what can be done with robots and what makes economic sense. "While robots can offer huge benefits, the industry has to be quite selective as to where it uses them. One of the problems we have had in the past with robots is that people either think they can do nothing to help them, or they think they can do everything. Neither extreme is true.

"What we need is a way of helping people to appreciate what robots can do, but also what they can't, so that they only use robots where they make sense."

Centre for food robotics

Which is why BARA (based at Warwick University), along with a number of leading automation and robot suppliers and public bodies are right behind CenFRA, Britain's first Centre for Food Robotics and Automation, due to officially open its doors in Doncaster in May.

CenFRA is the initiative of Yorkshire Forward, the regional development agency for the Yorkshire and Humberside region, and supported by its two sister bodies in the North: the Northwest Regional Development Agency and One NorthEast.

The idea of CenFRA, a not-for-profit company and the first of its kind in Europe, is to provide a one-stop-shop for the food companies in the North which they can go to for unbiased advice on automation and robotics solutions for their problems, and maybe try out some equipment to see what's possible. The aim is also to provide web-based learning material, possibly with accreditation up to degree standard, to bring operatives up to speed on industrial automation.

The setting up of CenFRA follows groundbreaking work by professor John Gray, head of Salford University's centre for robotics and automation, into what is needed to help food companies get to grips with automation and robotics. He believes they need some support to take the plunge.

"People have been saying for years that the food industry is ripe for automation and robotics. But that is not true. The industry isn't ready because of the way its market and business is modelled. What is required is a transition phase where the industry can go somewhere to get unbiased advice and support and to have its hands held when dealing with automation and robotics suppliers.

"The industry needs support. It needs support in gaining awareness; it needs support in the establishment of best practice; and it needs support in training. All good NHS stuff."

Dr Stephen Fitzpatrick is food and drink strategic cluster champion at Yorkshire Forward. He sees the only way for the region's food industry to remain sustainable is to be more competitive. "And the only way to get more competitive is to automate. That is why we went to Yorkshire Forward to get funding to set up this centre. It is all about engaging companies in robotics and automation."

His colleague, John Sorsby, food and drink manager at Yorkshire Forward, emphasises that CenFRA's aim is not to force a one-size-fits-all solution. "There are the high-volume, low-cost operations that need to invest more in robotics and automation to keep costs down. But there are the artisan manufacturers who want to carry on as a hand-made operation. That's fine. But for those that want to engage in automation, CenFRA will help them."

Free automation audits

Since CenFRA got started it has been offering free automation audits to local food firms, explains Fitzpatrick. "CenFRA engineers will go into a business and assess its automation status and make recommendations. It's not about selling robots, it's about looking at what solutions are available in the marketplace, and maybe developing new solutions."

So far, CenFRA has carried out 38 audits and has 20 requests for more. So far, says Sorsby, these audits have highlighted problems with changeover times, particularly in the chilled food sector, and with end-of-line applications.

Also, says Sorsby, part of CenFRA's role will be to develop a generic robot for the industry with a series of heads. "The idea will be that instead of companies coming to Doncaster, we can take this robot to them and do some application work at their site." CenFRA is now working on getting that up and running.

According to Sorsby, funding for CenFRA is now in place until 2012. "We aim to be self-financing after that when we hope it will become a national centre when we can look at other routes of public funding. Ultimately what we are aiming for is a more sustainable food and drink manufacturing base, certainly in the north and hopefully in the UK as a whole."

Help in banging the drum

One of the equipment suppliers backing CenFRA is ABB Robotics. Alan Spreckley, the company's channel partner manager is very enthusiastic. "I think CenFRA is an absolutely superb initiative. It's set up properly. They are getting the right people involved. ABB has been involved with CenFRA for the past 18 months and we hope to continue to be supportive. Hopefully we'll have some of our robots on site in Doncaster."

Spreckley sees CenFRA's role as mainly one of education. "We need to educate the industry about robots. The difference between Germany and the UK, for instance, is all about how the cost justification for automation is looked at. In the UK the main driver always appears to be how much the equipment costs and how much labour it can replace. You then divide the one by the other and that's your number of years payback."

On the Continent, he says, certainly in Germany, Italy, Spain, and France, there are at least 10, sometimes as many as 20, different factors taken in to account which are equally as important as labour saving.

"These include improvement of quality, improved throughput, improved consistency, better health and safety for employees, even the space saved. The list goes on. They are not all as significant as others, but they all pitch their worth into the justification process."

David Bradford, md of robot supplier RTS Flexible Systems, is another supporter of CenFRA. "Anybody who is out there banging the drum and trying to promote automation and robotics and getting people to come and try it has got to be good. Anything that helps people gain the confidence that technology applied in the right way is available and affordable is the right thing."

RTS has already spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on its own robotics test and demonstration facility where customers can pay for testing. Maybe RTS could offer that service to CenFRA as well, suggests Bradford.

One idea he has floated is that if CenFRA did all the basic evaluation for a particular application and decided it was, say, 80% confident that robotics would work, then maybe CenFRA could use the RTS facility to quickly confirm its thoughts, or not.

"We could certainly be offering technology and equipment to allow them to check out processes. If they wanted to check out vision-guided robots, for example, we have got tools we could lend them."

But whichever way CenFRA finally decides is best, Spreckley at ABB is very optimistic.

"What I hope it will achieve is to allow the UK food industry and its suppliers to be more successful in stemming the flow of firms looking to low-cost countries for production.

"More and more food companies are seeing that having robotics and automation in their production processes gives them a competitive edge. More are seeing the advantage of having equipment that is quickly reprogrammed, with a minimum of changeover time, and which will produce at the same rate 24 hours a day with little or no supervision." FM

Key Contacts

  • BARA 024 765 22764
  • CenFRA 0114 254 1238
  • RTS Flexible Systems 0161 777 2000
  • Salford University 0161 295 5952
  • Yorkshire Forward 0113 3949600

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