Back in 1970, the rise of the robots was in its infancy. The depiction of robot as cyborgs has potentially forever warped our perception of what a robot is, and what they look like. Yet, today, robots are being applied to many aspects of our day-to-day lives. One of the fields that we have seen the biggest uptake of robotics is in the food and drink industry. This is because robots are able to cost-effectively carry out tasks in just a fraction of the time that it would take a human. In the sector, robots are already being used for functions including packing, handling, quality control and even maintenance.
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.
Avoiding dangerous and repetitive tasks
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 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.
The keys to success
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 of the factory floor up to date at all times, ensuring the appropriate action can be taken should a risk be identified.
When it comes to the success of the ‘cobotics’ movement, we need to invest in educating our workforce to its benefits. By increasing understanding and implementation, we can drive efficiency, profitability and performance in the food and drink industry.
Schneider Electric Ltd
Stafford Park 5
Telford TF3 3BL
Fax to 0870 608 8 606