HOW WILL ROBOTS CHANGE FOOD PROCESSING AND PACKAGING OVER THE NEXT 10 YEARS?
Comments by Andrew Mason, Automation Sales Manager at RARUK Automation Ltd and BARA (British Automation & Robot Association) Council Member.
More and more, we are seeing increased adoption of robotics in the food industry. Take, for instance, robots being used for fruit picking. Using advanced sensors, robots are able to detect the ripeness of fruit. They can also apply the right amount of pressure to pick the fruit without damaging it, or the stem it has been picked from.
In terms of food packaging, most factories follow a similar process. Typically starting with box assembly, food products are then boxed, sealed and labelled. At the end of the line, the boxes tend to be palletised into larger boxes or onto pallets for transportation.
Every step of that process could be automated by a machine or robot. Currently, most of our customers combine manual and automated processes for product packaging. For instance, one customer uses human workers to pack the products into boxes, largely because a high-level quality check is also carried out at this stage. Although you could automate this process with cameras, it works well for this company to allocate their staff to that area of the otherwise fully-automated production line.
In my experience, the main driving factors for companies to invest in automation are labour shortage issues and repetitive strain injury. For instance, with palletising, the main issue is height. For the first few layers, it may not be too difficult for a worker to move an 8 kg box from a conveyor to a pallet. However, as the layers build up, the worker is at risk of muscular strain from reaching upwards repeatedly. This makes it a popular process to automate among our customers, and we are able to offer Robotiq’s palletising solution which can reach pallet heights of over 2 metres.
In the food industry, production and packaging lines tend to be tight for space – which is often a blocker for investing in automation. Our palletising solution has a small footprint, which helps businesses overcome this obstacle. The extent to which companies are able to automate is also often dependent on budget. Some tasks are more difficult and expensive to automate than others.
In ten years, it is likely that automation will be more widely accessible for a broader range of applications, as technology continues to advance and becomes more affordable. This will allow food manufacturers to automate dull, dangerous stages of their production and packaging lines and assign their workers higher-value tasks.