Changing consumer demands is one of the challenges facing food and beverage producers. Alan Spreckley, channel development manager for ABB Robotics, advises how these can be resolved.
Any food producer wishing to succeed in today’s competitive market must be responsive to rapid change. A high staff turnover coupled with such issues as product quality, flexibility of production lines and financial strain, all add pressure. It is not surprising then to see an increased interest in automation as robots address these problems.
According to a report by BARA in 2012, food and beverage manufacturers accounted for nearly a third of the applications received for the UK government’s Automating Manufacturing programme.
Inconsistent product quality is the enemy of food and beverage production. A mistake can affect the stock of ingredients, as well as the product, pushing up costs. Inattentiveness, operator boredom and failure to understand can all increase the risk of errors. Mistakes can cause late delivery and lost orders as customers look to alternative suppliers. In the extreme, they could even lead to an embarrassing product recall.
Sudden fluctuations in order sizes can also cause problems where processes are not sufficiently flexible. Drafting temporary labour can present another potential source of error, particularly where the workers may be unfamiliar with processes.
Another major issue is reliability. A general reluctance to invest in new technologies means that many companies expose themselves to an increased risk of unplanned downtime caused by failing equipment. No manufacturer wants their plant to be found wanting during an inspection by a major customer.
Furthermore, uncertainties in cash flow can make it difficult to hire sufficient staff and can be particularly problematic when production needs to be boosted.
Curing the headaches – the role of robotic automation
Consistent product quality
Ongoing developments in vision inspection technology are enabling robots to quickly spot defective products. The risk of contamination in processes where raw ingredients are handled is also significantly reduced. The hygienic design of ABB’s FlexPicker IRB 360, enables it to be washed down between processes, helping to ensure that contamination is eliminated.
Increased reliability and flexibility
Reliability is a key advantage of robotic technology. Once programmed, robots can be left to handle a process efficiently with no risk of issues. Able to switch between multiple processes with minimal downtime, they provide the flexibility needed to complete orders quickly.
A strong investment
Developments in offline programming make it possible to configure and test a robot in a virtual process before committing it to the factory floor, eliminating the time and cost of commissioning a physical installation. Robots can also help to reduce costs associated with drafting in extra staff, wastage and reprocessing of products.
The take-up of robotic technology is continuing to rise within the food and beverage industry, as continual advances and a fall in cost lead manufacturers to turn to automation, to help them achieve new breakthroughs in competitiveness and productivity.
As a manufacturer and supplier of robotics automation equipment, ABB is well placed to advise food and beverage manufacturing companies on the best way to optimise their processes.