Human-Robot Collaboration Is The Future of Food

Tuesday, March 12th, 2019

When we look at the combined benefits of collaborative robot operation and connected services, it is easy to see why connected cobots are leading the way to the next level of food and beverage production, says Alan Spreckley, Global F&B Industry Segment Manager For Robotics, ABB.


Why are cobots gaining traction in Asia?

Cobots allow greater manufacturing flexibility by combining people’s ability for adapting to change and improvisation with robot’s ability to tirelessly do repetitive tasks all day. This is important as food manufacturing moves towards smaller lots of greater variety in products and packaging.

For example, the same line might need to turn out regular foods as well as special variations for diabetics, vegan, gluten-free, as well as a higher rate of seasonal speciality foods. Cobots offer greater flexibility for these scenarios. Further, cobots can work without safety fences in many applications and can also allow greater flexibility of production layouts—factory flows can be tailored to opportunities instead of being constrained by barriers.


What are the benefits of integrating cobots into a traditional production line?

A traditional cobot is limited by speed and payload as it must stop if it comes into contact with a human being or another piece of equipment. The ABB YuMi dual arm robot is a first-class example of this type of collaborative robot and is now used extensively across a number of application areas. Another example of a robot used in a collaborative manner is typified by ABB’s SafeMove 2 which permits fenceless operation and fulfils the criteria for co-existence operation.

An example of the benefits of SafeMove 2 is in a bakery line if a box is not erected properly at a packing station the operator would have to meet all safety rules prior to entering the cell to remove the faulty box. This could take a few minutes with the implication that the whole line would or could be stopped. This would mean that products in the ovens and at other stages of the manufacturing process would be spoiled and would mean the whole line could be stopped for a number of hours for product removal and cleaning. On the other hand, if the robot packing cell is an ABB SafeMove 2 collaborative cell, the operator could enter the cell and the robot would slow down and stop allowing the operator to remove the faulty box. As the operator then walks away the robot would start slowly and then ramp up to top speed. This process would then take mere seconds, thus ensuring a critical stoppage was prevented.

The other key advantage of SafeMove 2 in a co-existence environment is that it permits high speed operation and high payload. To summarise, there is the potential for high speed, high payload operation with safe periodic intervention form the human operator hence giving high flexibility and helping preventing critical stoppages. With the removal of fixed fencing the overall footprint of the robot cell is generally smaller which saves high value production space.


What are the challenges to the adoption of cobots in Asia?

Many countries in Asia have traditionally relied on low-cost labour. But as wages are rising in most countries and workers are less inclined to do manual, physically demanding jobs, there are often talent shortages. While robots can offer manufacturers great scalability and help offset these labour shortages, most have no experience in integrating robotics. In many countries, there is also a shortage of system integrators with the right application expertise. A lot of robotics experts are focused on traditional manufacturing tasks such as welding, material handling and so on, but they are not familiar with F&B’s unique applications or automation solutions for example to ensure food hygiene. So, a lack of skilled experts with F&B application expertise is a real challenge.

We also see a trend of robots shifting from low value tasks at the ends of the value chain such as loading boxes onto palettes to higher value tasks such as food processing. This often requires greater expertise—for example, the ability to coordinate conveyors, robots and ovens, or to work with advanced vision systems. These systems rely on heavy data use for engineering, commissioning and operations, which also means F&B companies need workers who are fluent in digital. In many countries, this is a critical gap, and there is a need for even ‘average’ plant floor or service workers to be comfortable using technology such as collaborative robots.


Kindly highlight a case study in which an F&B manufacturer has invested in and benefitted from cobots.

Globally, many F&B companies are benefitting from all forms of robotic automation including cobots. In modern processing areas, there is the necessity for the more traditional robot cells as well as those utilising the latest technologies. This is particularly relevant within Asia Pacific as in 2017 robot shipments in this region grew by 37 percent (IFR 2017), which considerably outstripped growth in Europe and the Americas.

A typical example of collaborative operation with robots is in the bakery and confectionary industries where both YuMi and articulated robots with SafeMove 2 are being employed in the more traditional areas of picking, packing and palletising but also in the processing and warehouse distribution departments. You now see these cobots working alongside their human counterparts handling rolls of film and loading them onto the wrapping machines, loading flat board into case erectors (or even erecting the cases themselves), loading ingredients in the mixing halls, tray handling, de-panning and many other areas of processing and the cobots in turn improving flexibility, reducing downtime, assisting in the prevention of critical stoppages and providing the agility required for short production runs. In short they are improving quality and consistency of product and combating the rising cost of labour and reducing the effect of talent shortages.

We need to acknowledge as well that cobots mean different things to different people whereby collaborative automation means the cobots are easy to install, programme and use and provide the right balance between speed and safety while providing shop floor flexibility and improved overall operation efficiencies which in turn results in greater profitability. The robots provided by ABB for use in all areas of collaborative operation are all connected and are part of the ABB Ability digital offering. Connected services offer high level condition monitoring and diagnostics with superior access to quality data collection. Key benefits include increased efficiency, reduced downtime, planned stoppages, reduced service costs with improved equipment lifetime expectancy and improved statistical collection and feedback.

When we look at the combined benefits of collaborative robot operation and connected services it is easy to see why connected cobots are leading the way to the next level of food and beverage production.