Rise of the machines

Related tags Food industry Robot Food

Rise of the machines
As the economy is going down, sales of robots are rising. Lou Reade examines how automation can increase efficiency and help keep the food industry afloat

With scores of migrant workers reportedly waving goodbye to the UK, the time could be right for the food industry to write a new chapter - and automate.

"The price of labour is going up, and availability is going down," says David Cheeseman, commercial director of the Centre for Food Robotics and Automation (CenFRA). "Five years ago, you could double your output by putting more people on the line. That's getting harder to do."

Cheeseman's job - and CenFRA's mission - is to encourage automation within the food industry. And he says it's about time the UK caught up with other countries.

"Sweden, for example, has made huge investment in automation. We're always going to play catch up," he says.

Recent statistics from the British Automation & Robot Association show some glimmer of hope. Of the 871 new robots installed in UK industry in 2007, 79 were in the food industry - the largest proportion after the car industry. Other surveys show a positive trend: the International Federation of Robotics' study for 2008 shows a 20% increase in robot sales to the food industry, worldwide. But, total sales to the UK were down.

Most applications of robots in the food industry will be at the end of the line - packaging and palletising. These are an "easy hit", says Cheeseman: they are used in an identical fashion across industry, so are well established and well understood.

"Once you start moving up the production line you will need a unique solution," he says. "But there's no real application that can't be tackled. It all comes down to whether it's financially viable."

One company that is fitting robots is Barnsley-based Foster's Bakery. This should be no surprise, as its operations director, Michael Taylor, is also CenFRA's chairman.

"We're installing a robot at the bakery to load and unload a revolving oven," he says. "It would double the capacity of the oven, and that area of the business."

With CenFRA's help, he expects to have the robot up and running in the next few months. He expects it to save around £40,000 per year "overnight" - equating to a two-year payback.

"Raw material prices aren't coming down, so we'll have to be very efficient," he says. "People who say they can't afford to buy efficiency should realise that you can't afford not to. Margins are so tight that only the fittest will survive."

Robot manufacturer ABB Robotics is one of many that believes the food industry must invest in automation - particularly in tough times like these. Peter Cuypers, industry segment manager for food and beverage robotics, says: "You have to do it now. In this climate, retailers will not accept a reduction in volumes - and they'll put huge pressure on their suppliers to deliver."

He revealed a recent application that was developed in conjunction with system integrator Luma. The two companies have developed a system that can detect overlapping pancakes on a conveyor belt. The pancakes would once have been rejected, but now the system can pick and place them.

"This was a big challenge, which we've now overcome," he says. "There are dozens of pancake manufacturers out there who could benefit from this."

For systems integrator Abar Automation, which designs robotic cells for end users including food manufacturers, the move to more sophisticated use of robots is inevitable.

"Case loading and palletising robots are widespread," says sales director Brian Hill. "For food processing, take-up is lower due mainly to the wide variation of products and tasks."

He says the more bespoke nature of a food processing robot means that it will be more expensive - because, for example, dedicated software must be written to control it.

Despite this, he believes these types of application are likely to grow - as will the availability of robots that can perform these tasks, along with the necessary grippers, vision systems and software.

Baking tray pan handling is a common application for robots, he says, both as a batch and continuous operation.

"This is a repetitive task and the items to be handled are of a uniform size," says Hill. "The work is heavy and repetitive, and often done during unsociable hours in a hot environment - so is ideally suited to robots."

Robots are also widespread within Dutch and German cheese production, where they are used to move cheese to and from automated waxing, and back into racking. This reduces labour, removes health and safety issues and increases productivity, says Hill.

And despite the credit crunch, Abar is seeing an increase in business.

"Major expansion plans are being put on hold and companies are looking closely at how to improve existing operations," says Hill. "One way to increase productivity and profitability is through robotic automation."

Food consultancy Habwood Technical Solutions is also seeing robots move gradually up the line. Its director Peter Wallin says: "Costs are coming down, as people build more modular systems. You can now pay £25,000 for a robot that would once have cost £100,000."

He says that a common use of pick-and-place robotics is to assemble 'assortment packs' of biscuits or sweets - though he has also helped to develop a sandwich line that uses a robot. While some of the upstream food operations - cutting, buttering and filling - are done using linear drives, placing the sandwich into the pack is done with a robot.

"It can handle four or five at a time, while a person could only do two," he says.

There are limitations: sandwiches can only have paste-type fillings - so the notion of a Club sandwich made by robot is not yet possible.

"I've looked at problems such as how you might deposit a slice of tomato into a sandwich," he says. "But food construction - putting together a product using a robot - is still to be developed."

So for now, pressing a button marked 'Pepperoni' - and watching a family of robots put a pizza together - will have to wait. FM


**Germany gets a grip**

Europe's industrial powerhouse, Germany has never been afraid to mechanise.

"The food industry is still a new market for robots, and by no means an easy one," says Rolf Peters, md of K-Robotix. "This is because many products - whether sausages, fish fillets or cheese slices - vary in quality and size."

His is one of many companies at this month's Anuga fair that will try to convince visitors to switch to robots. It's no easy task: robots must meet high standards of hygiene, and perform increasingly sophisticated tasks.

One example is putting individual pralines into their packages. They must be precisely positioned and handled delicately - at speeds of up to 300 pralines per minute. Robots can only be successful in this instance when combined with fast image capture and sophisticated grippers.

In this application, a camera will record the pivot point, outline and balance point of the pralines - allowing the robot to pick and place them accurately. Grippers can take several forms - depending on the food they are handling. Different types of grippers will need to be developed if robots are to move further into food production applications.

An example, seen at the recent Forum Robotic in Bremen, is Schunk's LMG gripper, aimed at applications that require extreme hygiene. The body is in stainless steel, while internal mechanical components are completely sealed - even to high pressure cleaning. The jaws open and close using compressed air.


Abar Automation 01799 542243

ABB Robotics 01908 350300

CenFRA 01302 765680

Habwood 01562 742883

K-Robotix 0049 421 322630

Schunk 0049 7133 103 2972

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