Robotics offers food industry a taste of the future

Robots don’t carry or transmit germs. This means fewer risks to workers’ health and safety and improved food quality and traceability. And that's but one of the advantages that robotics brought to the food industry. The future is here

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The future has never looked more unpredictable for South Africa’s food and beverage sector, as it battles a perfect storm of pressure brought on by Covid-19, changing consumer and retail consumption patterns, disrupted supply chains and ongoing scrutiny around food safety. Linda Eales, robotics division manager at ABB South Africa, weighs in on some of the solutions offered by robotics.

The food and beverage industry has been battered by a couple of high-profile food safety scares in recent years, and it is scrambling to keep up with mega-trends like digitalisation and shifting consumption patterns.

The good news is that this could be the perfect opportunity for the local food and beverage industry to reposition itself for the present and future.

Food and beverage manufacturers increasingly need more flexibility on their production lines to enable them to adapt to changing consumer tastes and demands. At the same time, they require higher levels of productivity and efficiency, while maintaining the highest levels of product quality.

In many cases, the answer to these challenges is to install a robotics solution, which makes food and beverage operations safer and more productive.

Globally, the uptake of robotics is growing rapidly. In an ABB Industry Survey in January 2021, of 1 650 large and small businesses in Europe, the US and China, 84% of businesses said they would introduce or increase the use of robotics and automation in the next decade.

Nearly half (43%) said they were looking to robotics to help them improve workplace health and safety, and more than a third (36%) are considering using robotics to improve the quality of work for their employees.

Unfortunately, the South African food and beverage industry is lagging the rest of the world in implementing robotics. There are a couple of reasons for this: Robotics is seen as an expensive solution, and there’s a lingering perception that robots will take human jobs.

Neither is true. Plants that use robotics tend to have far fewer breakdowns, and far higher productivity. The cost of a plant standing still for several hours far outweighs the cost of a robot. And if anything, plants that install robots often end up creating more human jobs to cope with higher outputs.

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So, instead of a team of people manually palletising 80kg bags of material, a robot can do that job far faster and more effectively, and the people can be re-deployed in jobs like forklift drivers, quality assurance controllers and maintenance operatives.

Why robotics is the future

Fact is, robotics is nothing new. It’s been used at a basic level in the food and beverage industry for some time now to do jobs like the ultrasonic cutting of cheeses, cakes and gateaux; using water jets to cut bread rolls; collating meat and fish products into packing formats before primary packaging; and the automated de-panning of various bakery products in the confectionary and biscuit segments.

But it’s becoming more important – and more sophisticated – than ever. In addition, 85% of respondents in the ABB Global Survey conducted in January 2021 said the pandemic had been “game-changing” for their business and industry, with Covid-19 a catalyst for accelerating investment in automation.

Nearly half of businesses (43%) said they were looking to robotics to help them improve workplace health and safety, 51% said robotics could enhance social distancing and more than one third (36%) were considering using robotic automation to improve the quality of work for their employees.

In these times of pandemic, robotics play a key role in ensuring food safety by ensuring personnel work safely and by eliminating by-product contamination.

Robots don’t carry or transmit germs. This means fewer risks to workers’ health and safety, and improved food quality and traceability. It frees up human workers to perform higher-value tasks while securing food safety.

Consider the convenience

The convenience factor is another major driver of automation in the sector. Food and beverage manufacturers are increasingly being challenged to supply the right range of products, in the right sizes and formats, in the right types of palletised loads, for the right sales channels – at the right time.

The businesses that are using robotics in their operations are seeing remarkable results. In Brazil, ABB robots are supporting Nestlé, the world’s largest food and beverage company, to improve the productivity of pallet loading in its chocolate manufacturing facilities by 53%, using a new palletising robot solution.

A South African beverages manufacturer has reduced the risk of injury and increased productivity through the use of a single robot palletiser. Previously, four people would pack cartons and crates at a time, palletising heavy loads at heights of 1.5m and above, while another four would rest.

They would then rotate every 30 minutes to an hour. Now, the palletiser is delivering higher production volumes at lower risk. A number of other South African food producers have increased their production levels by using robots, as robots allow line speeds that cannot be maintained if packed by hand.

While the initial drive is always to improve efficiency and to drive down costs, we also find great flexibility in robots where our clients have many product sizes and pack formats.

Another client is using robots to pack different formats (500g, 1kg and 2kg bags) into various-sized boxes without the need to change any mechanical setup, as the packing robots are more flexible than a gantry type “pick and place” system.

One concern that we’re hearing from some food and beverage operators is that they don’t have the skills to use robots.

Fact is, employees who are comfortable with operating a tablet or smartphone will be able to programme and re-programme the new robots with ease, using ABB’s fast set-up and intuitive software tools.

Customers will also benefit from ABB’s global industry and application expertise, which has been developed from installing more than 500 000 robot solutions since 1974 and supported by ABB’s network of over 1 000 global partners.

The future is here for South Africa’s food and beverage industry. We just have to embrace it.

  • Linda Eales is the robotics division manager at ABB South Africa.

ALSO READ: Covid-19 boosts digitisation of agriculture industry

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