Team work

Automated production line in modern food factory. Ravioli production. People working.

Martin Walder explores the improved productivity and increased safety benefits associated with cobotics.

The explosion in popularity of science fiction in the 1970s has perhaps forever warped our perception of robots. Today, the reality is a far cry from those depictions, with robots becoming commonplace in our day to day lives.

There is perhaps no greater illustration of the technology’s growth than in the food and drink industry. Robots are perfectly suited to the field, cost effectively and accurately carrying out tasks, in a fraction of the time it would take a human. Functions like food picking and placing into containers, packaging, handling and packing are widely performed by robots. Robots are also starting to creep into quality control and maintenance, too.

Introducing cobotics

Like many industrial processes, food and drink production is always at risk from human error, which can cause downtime, poor quality and product loss, ultimately increasing costs. To minimise these risks and protect the production line, we are seeing the introduction of cobotics – compact, easy to use and collaborative robots – to work alongside humans.

As automation developers introduce better sensing capability and more responsive safety systems, the application of robotic equipment in this space will only increase, paving the way for improved interaction so that complex processes can be completed faster, more easily and more safely.

With this change comes an additional benefit for a skills poor industry struggling to attract engineering expertise. The cobotics movement doesn’t replace humans, rather it simply frees up highly skilled workers’ time for more value-add activity.

Minimising the risks

With the collaboration of robots and humans becoming increasingly a focus point for UK food production lines and supply chains, we are beginning to see how this collaboration can minimise risks to employees working on the factory floor. Robots are able to perform more dangerous and repetitive jobs that can often be hazardous for humans, such as cutting and slicing. In turn, this allows workers to apply their skills elsewhere. It also eases the social implications of the trend, ensuring the two parties can work in harmony towards productivity goals, while tackling the problem of engineering expertise retiring out of the workforce.

An example of robots’ capabilities to work alongside humans is the meat packing process. This involves handling and sorting products with a high degree of variability. Such differences are only visible to highly trained individuals and have not yet been mastered by machines. However, the repetitive nature of the physical packaging of the meat is far more effectively performed by robots. This is a situation in which humans and robots can work on the same production line to create an environment with a greater level of flexibility, measurability and ultimately high quality.

In addition, with increasingly sophisticated sensors and more highly functional robotic equipment, the collaboration between humans and machines on the factory floor is imperative to ensure uniformity and efficiency. This is because robots not only reduce the chances of human error, but also because they manage resources to achieve the best margin. For example, food manufacturers such as bakers have started to notice increased productivity and quality as a result of incorporating smart technologies into their equipment. Connecting these devices has shown it is possible to control speed, precision and the volume of ingredients, combining high turnover with consistent quality.

Making it happen

Ultimately, all food manufacturers must implement robotics and analytics to ensure they are getting the most out of their food lines. The only way to guard against human error or equipment failure, preventing downtime, product loss and security breaches, is to have greater insight into processes and have the capability to react in real time. Incorporating robotics into the food and drink production line is a vital step in the path to progress. In fact, the health and longevity of the sector relies on it.

The safety of staff in these collaborative scenarios should be of the upmost priority to manufacturers. This can be supported through both technology advancements and by upskilling staff on how to mitigate the risks on the factory floor when working alongside robots.

The capabilities to tap into advances in computer vision, information technology and engineering can enable manufacturers to deliver real time information and guidance at the point of use. Real time insights help to keep operators on the factory floor up to date at all times, ensuring the appropriate action can be taken should a risk be identified.

Ultimately, continuous improvement, investment and development into robotics will deliver greater efficiency, profitability and performance. The key to the success of this cobotics movement is educating the workforce on the benefits to improve understanding around their importance in the food industry to drive long term performance.

Author

Martin Walder, VP Industry at Schneider Electric.

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