Robotics in the Food Industry

Andy MacPherson, Industry Manager for Food & Beverage at Festo GB, shares his thoughts on why this is the perfect time for the food industry to invest in robotics and automation.

The global pandemic has had an enormous impact on our working and personal lives. From within the automation sector, one noticeable consequence is a massive rise in interest and opportunities for automation and robotics. In part, this is because Covid has accelerated emerging trends, many of which directly affect food manufacturing and logistics.

For instance, we have become very used to ordering customised products online and having them delivered within a few days. This can only be achieved cost-effectively through robotics and highly automated, flexible production processes: coupled with equally highly automated intralogistics fulfilment centres deploying hundreds, if not thousands, of automated pick and place devices. This level of automation is already achieving record levels of despatches.

Pressure on the food sector due to the drop in available flexible labour is another key driver for more widespread deployment of robotics and automation solutions. Costs associated with heavy, labour-intensive operations have increased, putting additional pressure on already tight margins. By contrast, the cost of implementing automation solutions has gone down, so the potential return on investment has never been higher.

New applications have also emerged during lockdown. Festo has supplied cartesian-based robot solutions varying from a complete system no larger than a sheet of A4 size paper to applications with gantries spanning more than 30m2. The common success factor in delivering such solutions lies in the ease with which axes can be combined with the appropriate motors and motion controllers to provide the required speed, force and precision for the task.

Simple design solutions

In over thirty years in automation, I have never seen such pressure for rapid delivery of handling system designs. Fortunately, Festo has been able to produce urgent design concepts for customised multi-axis handling solutions in a matter of hours using a design and selection package called Handling Guide Online (HGO). It allows us to input the application requirements in the customers’ language, such as the stroke lengths, mass to be moved etc. The HGO then looks for all possible solutions based upon feed forces, inertia and the mechanical bearing specifications and then prioritises them. Price may be the most critical factor – but so too can power requirements or safety factors.

The models created within the HGO contain not only the simulations but also the mechanical design and bill of materials. The 3D CAD drawing is created in numerous formats simultaneously and even includes documentation for electrical wiring and programming I/O allocations. All this data seamlessly transfers into the preferred documentation software such as EPLAN. Kinematic models can be picked up within higher-level simulation packages, enabling the simulation of complete stations. The operating (PLC) program can be pre-written and virtually commissioned: all before any metal is cut or assembled. In summary, it has never been simpler to design and implement an automation solution.

The time is now

The global pandemic has been highly disruptive for the food sector, but it can also be a catalyst for positive change. Many consumers won’t return to previous habits now they have become used to fast online services, setting the trend for accelerated robot design and delivery in the future. Increased access to easy to use, free of charge software like Festo’s HGO means food manufacturers and machine builders can now specify robotic handling and automation systems quickly and accurately, accelerating speed of adoption. We need to change our mindset from thinking that robotics and automation is complex, expensive and difficult to maintain. The reality is that the food sector cannot afford not to automate.