Mike Wilson, president of the British Automation & Robot Association (BARA) told FoodManufacture.co.uk that despite a 172% growth in robot sales to the UK food and drink industry since 2006, the UK still lagged significantly behind its EU neighbours.
Wilson said that leading robot suppliers were beginning to understand that user-friendly, affordable systems could boost the popularity of their wares, rather than complicated systems that tried to accomplish too many tasks.
He said:“Certainly leading robot suppliers are driving towards developing robots that are easier to programme and maintain, systems that non-engineers can use.”
He added that SMEs in the food and drink industry found it particularly difficult to afford engineers specialising in advanced manufacturing technologies, whether as permanent staff or consultants.
Another rationale for cheaper, less complicated systems was short-term payback, Wilson said, with UK manufacturers eager for quick returns from pricey, complicated machines because of worries about whether they would keep key retail contracts:
“One problem for businesses here is that the supermarkets have so much power,” Wilson said. “I feel they could be a little more proactive and encourage suppliers to innovate in exchange for contractual security.
“It would benefit the whole supply chain and prevent a vicious circle: if smaller manufacturers don’t spend on automation they risk losing contracts, but if they innovate, they worry about capital expenditure and potentially long payback times.”
Wilson said that German manufacturers only expected payback after five years, on average, and uptake of robotic technology was consequently higher than in the UK, as the latest International Federation of Robotics figures for 2008 show.
Within the food and drink industry, 823 robots were sold in Germany compared with 74 in the UK during 2008. Germany had a total of 4,817 robots in the industry, while the UK only had 637.
Nonetheless, Wilson said that baking and confectionery were two areas of food manufacturing where automation was making inroads, with current food and beverage industry growth driven primarily by “large manufacturers”. He mentioned primary and secondary packaging as two tasks for which robots were proving popular.
One scheme to encourage automation through affordability was launched by the Centre for Food Robotics and Automation (CenFRA) in July.
It employs 3D computer simulations to help food manufacturers ‘virtually’ evaluate the merits of automating aspects of production processes, and helps them avoid the expense of installing potentially unsuitable trial systems.
A CenFRA spokeswoman told FoodManufacture.co.uk said that new simulation techniques could be used by the food and beverage industry as a whole, and that uptake had been good thus far.
She cited a recent trial at Yorkshire-based pork pie maker Vale of Mowbray:“The firm wanted to expand a production line using robotics. They simulated a proposed idea using CenFRA simulation and found it didn’t work for them.
“It actually made production less efficient, and the design was subsequently fine-tuned. Obviously this saved them money on dummy trials.”
According to BARA, the food and drink sector accounted for 17% of UK robotics sales in the second quarter of 2010, second only to the pharmaceuticals industry (at 19%).
Overall sales of robotic equipment in the first half have also grown for the first time since 2006, and are 55% up on 2009, said BARA.