More firms take the pick and place automation challenge

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Robot

Increasing numbers of robots are being used in upstream food processing operations, rather than more traditional end of line packaging and...

Increasing numbers of robots are being used in upstream food processing operations, rather than more traditional end of line packaging and palletising operations. But, according to experts in the field, this presents a new level of complication that has to be accommodated.

"Picking is where the most added value lies, but the hurdle is higher," says Peter Cuypers, ABB's global food and beverage sector manager. "We can pick almost anything: poppadoms, pancakes, meat and frozen pizzas ... we've done hundreds in food and beverage alone." And the benefits in terms of increased productivity are significant, he adds. "There is no way you can do this purely with labour." What's more, there is often a very good business case to be made.

Cuypers cites a snack food installation for United Biscuits carried out by integrator RTS Flexible Systems that delivered a pay-back in just 13 months.

Cornish pasty manufacturer Ginsters, is another firm that has recognised the benefits of robotic automation and has carried out a raft of automation projects since 2003. But, as Ginsters' projects manager Tom Crawford points out, getting robotic systems to work as you want them to is very much a learning experience. On one early installation, he admits: "It took us 12 months to iron out all the bugs." He adds that Ginsters had to be particularly careful with the picking and placing lines it installed.

The initial problems for Ginsters were that: "We didn't have the knowledge of our product we thought we had," says Crawford.

This highlighted the differences in tolerances acceptable to humans and those acceptable to robots. Basically, workers will accept far more physical variation in a product than a robot will. Consequently, Ginsters was forced to improve the consistency of its products. But this had the knock-on benefit of improving yield and producing a better product generally, which could then be handled by the pick and place robots. "Product specification is critical to the success of automation," affirms Crawford.

While it took the company three months to sort out problems on its first pick and place line, it took just five days on its second. A third line is due to be automated this year.

To get the full benefits of automation it was necessary to "upskill" Ginsters staff, says Crawford. "We had to totally change our management structure," he adds. "Probably the most important [aspects] are accountability and responsibility - when you give them to people that's when they really start to shine."

But in the end, the real benefit is all about return on investment. "That's the main one for us," says Crawford.

l Food Manufacture is organising a 'Robotics and automation' round table on April 29. The morning event, which is free for those in food processing operations, is being held at the new Centre for Food Robotics and Automation in Doncaster.

For details call Helen Law on 01293 846587 or email

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