Much ink has been spilled about the take-up of automation and robotics by food processors. Every year seems to be hailed as the year interest in automated systems will soar.
Most of the time, this turns out to be wishful thinking by equipment suppliers. But in the past recessionary year, the food and drink sector has shown remarkable buoyancy.
Figures from the British Automation & Robot Association (BARA) indicate food and drink manufacturers bought more robots than any other single sector, representing 20% of sales of UK robots. That's a 15% rise on 2008 sales, equating to 94 units. Car manufacturers would have beaten that score, but BARA splits the figures for that sector in two combined, they account for 25% of sales.
The numbers are admittedly influenced by the hit the automotive industry took in 2009, although if anything they are an underestimate; BARA acknowledges not all sales into the UK market may be captured.
As for purchasing trends, vision systems, including 3D imaging, and end-of-the-line systems such as palletisers, packaging solutions and data capture devices are where the action is, according to experts.
"People are looking to upgrade product inspection, so they can be certain they have the right product in the right pot with the right label," says David Hopper, technical director at RTS Flexible Systems. "We're also seeing increased take-up of 3D systems. Cameras are developing better resolutions and image processing is becoming faster." Vision systems can be used to get a tighter grip on quality control compliance, such as checking labelling accuracy, says Hopper. "Machine vision allows for quite complex quality analysis and these systems are more easily integrated into the production line now." However, he says their current popularity is driven less by increasing sophistication and more by the fact that they have become cheaper and easier to use.
Torsten Giese, marketing manager PR and exhibitions at Ishida Europe says: "Vision technology has moved on to checking the description on barcodes. The automation of quality control is easier and more reliable now."
Robotic food handling has developed considerably, he says. "Automation is not just about packaging, but the end of the line pick and place and palletising. Shrink-wrapping pallets is a big thing.
"Pick and place systems have massively advanced putting products into a tray and putting that tray on to a pallet. There are now more precise and faster robots at the end of the line for palletising."
New grippers are being developed at the moment, says Mike Wilson, chairman of the Centre for Food Robotics and Automation (CenFRA) and BARA president. "They can handle fruit, vegetables, eggs delicate products. Festo's FinGripper, for example, can pick up different shaped apples without bruising them."
Despite these innovations, some believe the UK food industry remains slow to invest in automation when compared with other countries. Many kit suppliers hoped UK take-up would pick up from January, but in reality, this didn't happen. "We have seen investment in large projects go down in the past year people are waiting and investing instead in smaller upgrades," says Giese.
Hopper reports a lull in robotic installations from scratch at present: "One confectionery manufacturer just replaced its old robots with new ones that's not a case of robots going in where people were previously."
The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is working with BARA members on a study attempting to investigate the reasons for the lack of enthusiasm for robotics. The project compares the UK with Germany, Spain and Sweden and is expected to yield results at the end of this month.
Speculative explanations have included the intensely competitive relationship between the supermarkets and processors. Some say processors enlisted to make retailers' own label lines are reluctant to invest in big projects because product or packaging specifications can change rapidly, making recently installed kit obsolete. Contracts, too, may be too short term to deliver meaningful payback. Wilson says: "You can't expect someone to invest £1M in a facility if they don't have the confidence they will retain the contract."
A supportive approach from retailers yields many benefits, says Wilson. "It's better for retailers to help suppliers automate, because in the long run it means a better quality product coming out more reliably and quite possibly at a better price."
He also sees access to funding, which is linked to the lack of a joined-up approach between government and industry over business development as another potential hurdle to investment in automation. "Food manufacturing doesn't really have a position within government structure. It falls between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and BIS, yet it's our biggest manufacturing sector."
Giese says the cost of manufacturing is high in the UK, adding: "The trend for the UK is to set up operations in other countries, where costs are lower."
By contrast, some firms that enthusiastically commit to automation in the UK may be put off when they subsequently experience setbacks. If a large-scale project goes wrong, the results could be "company breaking" says Brian Hill, sales and marketing director at Abar Automation. He cites one company that was driven out of business a few years ago after it involved a conveyor firm in a robotics project. "They didn't understand robotics and it was a complete failure."
In another instance, a company had spent millions of pounds on robotics and automation, but had teething problems with many of the machines, causing persistent downtime. Consequently, the manufacturer concerned concluded it would be more efficient to switch to manual labour for some tasks and many of the machines it installed have now been mothballed, says Hill.
Yet despite the bad experiences, there has never been more impetus to develop robotics and automated systems.
For one thing, the demand for the food industry to become more sustainable, guaranteeing food security for the ever-growing world population, calls for the application of technology to increase productivity. "The government's Food 2030 report [published in January], which looks at the sustainability of the food supply chain, is primarily focused on the agricultural side," says Wilson. "You need to move on and look at the processing side."
Sustainable use of resources and the need to protect the environment could also fuel increased investment in automation. "A lot of food manufacturers are now looking at energy as a cost," says Dominic Molloy, sales director for UK and Ireland at Rockwell Automation. "Automation gives you a great way of tracking how you perform in real time."
Then there's the situation with regard to available cheap labour. Not so long ago, workers from Central and Eastern Europe were flooding the UK market as the EU expanded its borders and the UK was one of the first to welcome them. However, as economies in their countries of origin have closed the gap with ours and as more countries open their doors, these immigrants have started to return home or go elsewhere. They are also no longer satisfied with previous wages.
"In 2011, European borders open up to eastern European workers," says Wilson "A lot of these went into the food industry. If I was, say, Polish and could find a job in Germany, which would be closer to home with higher wages, I'd do it." He says increased automation would help plug that gap.
This drain on the workforce will add to the pressure from other countries, especially developing countries such as China and India. The UK will find itself under increasing pressure to boost efficiency and cut costs to compete, says Molloy. Rising wage costs coupled with declining costs of automated systems as technology becomes more affordable presents a further powerful argument for automation.
Not only is technology becoming more cost-effective, it is also evolving opening up more opportunities for its use. For example, ABB's MultiMove robotic control technology can negotiate a metal pin at high speeds between two trays of drink cans positioned just 1mm apart.
There are a host of other conditions that strengthen the argument for automation. They include demand from retailers to deliver a 'just in time' supply chain model, which requires a high degree of 'lean' manufacturing techniques to crank up efficiency. In tandem with this is the drive to standardise processing techniques to ensure high levels of quality and the need for swift and accurate traceability.
Given all of these factors, plus the evolution of robotics and automation technology, perhaps it is not surprising that the food industry is finally showing signs of overcoming reluctance to buy into it. FM
Food Manufacture is holding a roundtable debate on robotics and automation issues at CenFRA HQ in Doncaster on March 16. The event is free for food and drink processing personnel. For more details, visit www.foodanddrinkevents.com/foodman/auto_robotics or contact Helen Chater at mailto:email@example.com (direct line: 01293 846596).
Weighing up ready meals
French chilled and frozen food processor Marie Sergelés has installed an automated line for weighing and packing ready meals into microwaveable trays in partnership with Ishida at its Airvault plant.
The equipment will cater for its production of a leading brand of weight control products as well as the Marie brand and retailers' own label items.
Ishida won the contract for the project on the basis of its ability to provide 'single-source' responsibility for the whole line. The installed kit includes two tray denesters; a multi-head weigher with distribution system; an Ishida QX-1100 traysealer; a volumetric dosing system for rice and pasta; and a 20 metre chain and peg conveyor.
These features integrate two existing sauce-dosing systems and are centrally controlled. "The support from the Ishida technical people has been excellent and the line is very user-friendly and offers simple changeovers as well as being very easy to clean," says Julien Le Garrec, sector manager at Marie in charge of the trays unit.
The QX-1100 Traysealer can handle up to 200 trays per minute, with rapid and easy changeovers allowing rapid control of sealing and the atmosphere within the tray. It processes more than 90 packs a minute of the 350g meals at the Airvault site, which are converged into a single line for sleeving and secondary packaging.
Lines produced by the site include a calorie-controlled ready meal of pasta and prawns in a sauce, with diced courgettes. Empty trays are separated and placed in two lines on the conveyor by the tray denesters. Spaghetti and sauce are added via the volumetric system, followed by sauce. Trays then pass to the 24-head weigher, which is divided into two sections of 12 heads, each of which can act as a separate weigher.
One side of the weigher handles the prawns and the other processes the courgettes. Ingredients are conveyed via four dipping funnels, which contain splashing and bouncing, into four trays. These are then passed to the tray sealer.
ABAR automation 01799 542243
ABB 01908 350300
BARA 020 8773 8111
CenFRA 01302 765 680
Festo 01604 667584
Ishida Europe 0121 607 7700
Rockwell Automation 0870 242 5004
RTS Flexible Systems 0161 777 2000