Members press release

Fanuc Robotics Europe - IFR Partner

Robots come of age in the food industry

The use of robotics has been widespread in many sectors where fast and accurate assembly has been a top priority, yet up until recently UK food manufacturers have been slow to adopt robotics, perhaps due to concerns over fear of the unknown, perceived long payback period and lack of application understanding.

But these are changing times and recent robot reports paint a new picture. According to BARA, UK robot sales reported at the half year point in 2013 have accelerated, almost matching the level for the entire year of 2011. Even though the UK is reluctant in its adoption of robotics and automation compared to its EU counterparts, figures show that 1,286 robots have been sold in the first two quarters of this year, compared with a total of 2,000 robots in the record year of 2012. Most importantly, sales of non-automotive sector robotics are double what they were in 2009 and if the adoption of robots in the food industry continues as it's begun, this year could see as much as a 70% increase in food sector sales compared to 2000.

So why the change? Looking to bust the myths and common misconceptions surrounding automation, the recent £600k government funded Automating Manufacturing Programme, managed by BARA, gave UK manufacturers impartial advice on the implementation of automation solutions. The programme was in response to recommendations made in an industry study, Application of Automation in UK Manufacturing (Sept 2010), which polled a broad spectrum of manufacturers of engineered products and food in Spain, Germany, Sweden and the UK. The study not only aimed to find out why the UK lags behind the rest of the world in the adoption of automation, but looked to address the issues with an action plan of initiatives to stimulate growth. Results from the study, which was commissioned by members of the Engineering and Machinery Alliance (EAMA) with support from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), concluded that the main reasons for UK manufacturers' investment reluctance in modern manufacturing technologies were due to a lack of knowledge, skills and confidence.

Over the course of the 18 month Automating Manufacturing Programme, which began in September 2011, 366 UK manufactures of all sizes took a risk-free plunge into the automation arena, around 40% of which were food manufacturers. The programme, which initially offered a free audit of the manufacturer's operation and identified potential opportunities to apply automation, was followed by implementation support. The recent industry robot sales figures are testament that the programme has gone some way to addressing concerns that in the past prevented manufacturers from automation uptake.

Robot cost and the perception that paybacks are lengthy has been addressed by FANUC's robot redevelopment programme, which has resulted in a 20% reduction in parts on the latest palletising and pick and place models - the most common applications for robots in food manufacturer. Less moving parts not only results in a more robust system, but has led to a fall in prices, enabling manufacturers to receive a more desirable payback, often within 12 months. Perceptions relating to robot occupation have also changed now that manufacturers have a better understanding of the ease with which a robot can be redeployed into a new role. This addresses a common problem created by retailers placing short-term contracts and manufacturers not knowing how their automation needs may change over the course of a year. Yet by offering free consultancy on re-deployment, which assists with layout, location and considers numerous software and end effector options, a robot can easily take on a wider range of occupations over the course of its 25 year service - the typical lifespan of a FANUC robot. Of the 5,000 FANUC robots built per month, many are stock items and available for quickly delivery to help manufacture's fulfil the demands of a retailer contract, and to put minds at rest relating to service and upkeep over such a long life span, FANUC provide a 25 year parts availability guarantee, including obsolescence avoidance solutions. 

Over the course of the last 10 years, food manufacturers have faced greater pressure to adhere to increasingly stringent levels of compliance. Whether responding to individual Retailer Codes of Practice (COP) or the latest requirements set out by the British Retail Consortium, manufacturers must demonstrate tight product control and complete line integrity. Manufacturers looking to improve hygiene, by removing the uncertainty the human element brings to the equation, have been driving the need for food-grade equipment. FANUC's range of 20+ palletising and pick and place systems, many of which are IP67K certified, now include two new IP69K certified full wash-down models. The very nature of a robot arm, with its many crevices and less durable construction materials, has in the past prevented it from working in extreme environments. As well as making their robots more cost effective and compact, FANUC has focused on hardening its robots for sanitation, making them able to withstand the harshest of environments and high pressure water hose cleaning, which is often used during food manufacture.

The new M-2iA high speed, delta style assembly robot, with its four axis capability, is ideal for picking up wrapped or unwrapped foods from one conveyor and placing them into product trays or cartons on an adjacent conveyor. With two size options, and ceiling mounted to save space, the system has a 3kg payload and is capable of an incredible 220 cycles per minute, making it an ideal option for high volume manufacturers. To achieve high accuracy and ±0.1mm repeatability which has been known to reduce rejects by 75%, the system incorporates the latest controllers, R-30iB, for line tracking across up to eight conveyors, and vision technology, iRVision, which aids product picking from a moving conveyor and barcode reading. Designed with a durable epoxy coating, food-grade lubricant and over 20 suction or gripper style end effector options, it is ideal for handling unpackaged and raw foods and makes it a leader in its class.

Another new addition to the FANUC family of pick and place robots is the LR Mate 200iD/7C articulate arm IP69K certified robot. A slightly slower robot, yet still capable of 180 cycles per minute, the six axis system shows greater dexterity, capable of tilting products under a lipped edge deep box, for example. It also has a higher payload, 7kg, and because of its compact size and 25kg weight, it's easy to integrate into a cell or can be mounted on the floor, upside down, on a wall or at an angle. Simple to install, greater flexibility and an economical price tag make the LR Mate200iD the best in its class and ideally suited to a wide range of food handling occupations where dexterity is required.

Not only does the integration of robots enhance a food manufacturer's competitive edge through increased productivity, reduced waste and greater profitability, for some food companies with arduous, labour-intensive manufacturing processes, it's the robot's ability to reduce injuries to their workforce which matters most. Unlike manual staff a robot doesn't need lunch, holiday or take a day off due to illness, nor does it lose concentration. Projections suggest that two million jobs will be created in the next eight years because of the robotics industry, as indicated by IFR's* recent study, and further to this 60,000-80,000 new activity jobs will be created in the food industry alone between 2012-2016. Retraining staff to operate robots, at FANUC's new 3,000m2 interactive facility at its HQ in Coventry, not only increases a worker's skill set, it creates renewed vigour and certainly provides a greater sense of job satisfaction, compared to completing the same task manually.

With often a 12 month ROI, unrivalled low total-cost of ownership over 25 years of service, 20+% energy usage savings on the latest models and the ability to work around the clock in the harshest of environments, FANUC's Japanese development team are working hard to bust robot myths and with their adoption help food manufacturers create a new competitive edge.


Author: Chris Sumner, Managing Director FANUC UK and Vice President of FANUC Europe Corporation (FEC)


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