£2bn fund raises industry’s automation hopes

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

Food industry automation could benefit from the new £2bn fund
Food industry automation could benefit from the new £2bn fund

Related tags Robot

With the government pledging an additional investment of £2bn a year by 2020 for UK research and development – including a special fund for priority technologies, such as robotics – the food and drink sector will need to ensure that industrial applications in areas such as packaging are not overlooked, says the British Automation & Robot Association (BARA).

“My potential concern is that a significant proportion of the investment will go towards the development of more advanced robotic technologies, such as driverless cars,” ​warned BARA president Mike Wilson.

“We will be encouraging the government to keep industrial automation in mind, rather than the higher-profile, sexier end of robotics.”

For automation in the food and drink sector, Wilson identified another challenge. “The sector tends to fall between two stools,” he claimed.

‘Not get the attention it deserves’

“It does not come under the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, instead falling within the remit of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. So it tends not to get the attention it deserves.”

The UK also lagged behind other major economies when it came to robotic use. BARA quoted figures from the World Robotics report 2016, from the International Federation of Robotics.

This showed Germany with 170 robots per 10,000 workers (outside automotive use) and the UK with just 33.

But there was some good news. “In the first three quarters of 2016, the number of robots sold in the UK was up 66% on the previous year, said Wilson. In fact, sales over those three quarters exceeded sales over the previous three years.

“Over the past six months or so, we’ve noticed increasing interest in robotic solutions in the light of concerns that labour costs will increase because of Brexit,” ​he said. “The food and drink industry in particular depends on a significant proportion of non-UK EU workers.”

Wary about investing in automation

Pacepacker Services, a systems integrator and strategic partner for robotics company Fanuc, warned that many food businesses – particularly the smaller ones – were wary about investing in automation because of tight margins, notoriously short supply contracts or changing retailer packaging requirements.

“In fact, when a manufacturer has to change from rigid trays to flexible packaging, for example, and the only common denominator is the returnable retail tray the product is shipped in, our articulated robot arms can handle the change with different tooling and reprogramming,”​ said Pacepacker’s Paul Wilkinson. “Our system even orientates the bags vertically in the tray.”

Designs could be modular and expandable, he explained. If volumes increase, end-users might well be able to double the capacity of robotic pick-and-place grippers to allow the filling of two cases at a time, rather than one.

“Integrators such as ourselves can draw on a vast array of solutions, from the simplest to the most complex, pneumatic to servo operation and pre-owned to brand new​,” Wilkinson explained.

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