What can you tell us about the use of automation in the F&B industry at present?
Robots are used throughout the food and beverage industries—perhaps the most common applications are picking and packing. For example, picking frozen chicken nuggets and placing them four to a container, or picking individual yogurt cups and placing them in larger quantities together.
Palletising final product is a very common robotic application, where boxes, packs of bottles or really any final products are placed on pallets ready to leave the factory. There are robot solutions for picking and packing, and some even have versions with stainless steel enclosures to withstand repeated washdowns that are very common in food and beverage. They can also come complete with vision systems.
Robots are used because they are an efficient way to increase productivity with the added benefits of increasing levels of people and food safety. Because the robots use grippers to pick up foods, they reduce human contact with open foods and also can be easily cleaned.
At the same time, production environments can range from the very hot to the very cold, while requiring a very repetitive task to be done. Our robots don’t mind the temperatures, and improve people safety by performing strenuous or very repetitive tasks all day, every day.
But robots are only one part of the automation spectrum. We look at three main areas: automation, robotics and now, as we are in the fourth industrial revolution, digitalisation.
Automation covers the control systems used, like MES systems, to the PLCs and even the variable speed drives and motors. ‘Robotics’ deals with using robotics throughout production, as discussed, and ‘digital’ deals with connecting more and more of the production machines and even the systems in those machines to the cloud.
Going digital is about enabling the collection of data and using that data to analyse and improve the way a factory runs. Digitalisation also encompasses the benefits of remote condition monitoring.
For example, we’ve developed a motor sensor that can be easily installed on low voltage motors across a plant. The smart sensor monitors the performance of the motor much like when we use a fitness tracker when we work out. This data is collected in the cloud, viewed on your mobile device, or on the PC. It opens up a new level of insight into parts of production at a scale that was not economically feasible before, and really shows the advantages of preventative maintenance.
What is your view of the F&B market's use of technology at the moment?
What we have seen through our survey of the market and talking with customers is that overall, the adoption rate for automation, robotics and digitalisation is much lower than for other industries like metals, automotive, or electronics.
Of course there are many factors for this. Cost and the need to continuously produce puts pressure on manufacturers that can result in a delay in technology upgrades, or even thinking about how to upgrade. We also see that there is an idea that new technology is only for new factories, not for existing facilities, and we want to be sure that manufacturers know that they can upgrade their factory, even if it’s 40 years old.
The great thing with our technology and solutions is that you don’t need to dive full into upgrading your whole plant at once. Instead, we know that production can’t be stopped for a long time, so we work with our customers to develop a plan that makes sense for their operations, their production needs and ultimately their comfort level.
We also see some customers who are very interested in testing new technologies in one part of their production to understand the benefits or even to see how they could use the technology in other areas of their production. We even work with some of the largest companies to co-develop solutions to ensure they meet the specific needs of that company.
At the same time, while overall adoption rates have been low, we do predict that levels of automation, robotics and digitalisation will be on par with other industries within the next five years. This means that we will see a rapid rise in automation, in particular coupled with the advantages of unlocking data as part of the fourth industrial revolution.
What advice can you give manufacturers in using/choosing the right equipment for them, and what should be the most important factors in such decisions?
There are many different factors, from the age of their plant to the levels of competition they face. Each plant is unique; that’s why it is important to first go and listen to the customer’s needs: what is it that they want to do and to understand how they want to see their company grow.
Following an appraisal, it is then possible to develop an upgrade plan that would make sense for the company. Upgrades can be done either from a systems perspective, for example upgrading the electrical infrastructure, to upgrading individual process lines, or even from a control system upgrade perspective. These can also be done without having to stop production, for example overnight or on weekends.
Some investments have a much faster return, typically energy and water saving technologies pay back quite quickly and use new technology that is easily integrated into more advanced control systems or production systems as the factory and production needs grow.