ABB’s pioneering robot technology is transforming operations for big name clients across the food and beverage industry
With rapidly changing consumer demands, ever more stringent regulations and new market opportunities, food and beverage manufacturers are facing increasing challenges. Many of these can be solved through greater use of robotic automation in packing.
A major challenge is recruitment. With the UK population set to surge to 69 million people by 2024, the industry will need 140,000 new recruits. Yet 42 per cent of food and drink businesses expected a decrease in the supply of permanent workers in 2019.
Packing robots can help fill this gap, removing dull, repetitive work and allowing staff to improve skills. The latest high-speed picking robots can recognise shapes, sizes and colours, adjusting to achieve top speed and precision. They can also quickly switch to handle different products, using finger-like grippers or suction pads.
One advanced robot family, ABB FlexPicker, has been designed to be compact, accurate and with the ability to move heavy payloads. It also offers a stainless-steel option for food handling, allowing normal washdown processes. One company that has benefited from packing automation is Müller Dairy, which realised an existing re-pack line was too manually based. The repack system was to take packed yogurt from a pallet, produce a multi pack, repack and palletize. Using four ABB Flexpickers, the new repacking line is able to handle twice the number of products.
The flexibility to deal with widely varying products is also essential to meet customer demands. The ability of pick and place systems to recognize packaging and variations in products is growing in importance as companies make efforts to accommodate special diets. For example, in 2019 there were 600,000 vegans in Great Britain, up from 150,000 (0.25 per cent) in 2014. Advanced vision systems now allow pick and pack robots to recognise items on the production line by size, shape and colour, regardless of orientation.
Kraft, makers of the ‘Roses’ and ‘Heroes’ brands of chocolates, decided robotic automation could help to greatly enhance efficiency. Four ABB IRB 660 robots with bespoke vacuum tooling and high definition cameras select products from tote bins. The ability of the robots to distinguish the chocolates enables Kraft to manage multiple products with improved speed and efficiency. Despite packaging recycling rates rising from 31 per cent in 1998 to 64 per cent in 2017, the UK food and drink manufacturing industry recognises it can do more. This was one incentive for Kraft to adopt the robot vision system. Before the new system, products were boxed and transported to two manual packing plants. Once the chocolates were tipped into hoppers, the empty cardboard boxes were crushed and removed. By cutting out boxes, the robotic system greatly reduces cardboard waste.
Towards carbon neutral
Reducing the environmental impact of food production is increasingly important and robots can go a long way to helping manufacturers achieve their goals. Swedish chicken products producer Guldfågeln has a comprehensive environmental policy and operates as a carbon-neutral business. It needs to adhere to very stringent food safety regulations while remaining competitive with foreign suppliers. The company uses a robot to palletize cardboard boxes in a cold storage facility. Two carton machines build the boxes before they’re filled with chicken. Labelling and sealing of the boxes is part of an automated process that takes place before the boxes are palletized by the robot. Guldfågeln views automation as its key to increasing efficiency and thus maintaining competitiveness.
Keep production time high
Many companies are reluctant to use robot systems because they fear they’ll be difficult to program and will disrupt production while switching from one program to another. Offline programming suites, such as ABB’s RobotStudio, allows robot programming without shutting down production.
This provides numerous benefits, including risk reduction, quicker start-up, shorter change-over and increased productivity. In addition, ABB’s FlexPendant allows easy programming through a touch screen that can be unplugged and shared between several robots.
When it comes to the challenges of packing in food and beverage, it’s clear that robots have all the answers.