Robotics in Food Processing – 9 Common Questions About the Future Answered
April 6, 2021
EnSight Solutions and Stäubli are on the forefront of helping food processors automate their processes and integrate robots into their businesses. Let’s explore nine questions processors frequently ask about automation and robotics in food processing, along with answers from industry thought leaders.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why are processors looking to robotics now more than ever?
One definite reason is capabilities–and more than just what tasks robots can and can’t accomplish.
Robots have been used in packaging and industrial environments for some time. But, it’s only been recently that design and technology advancements have made it possible to deploy robots into the primary side of food processing.
When it comes to food processing, you know that cleaning is a key part of maintaining a clean system. And for a long time, washdowns and robots did not mix at all. But now, Stäubli offers multiple robots in a variety of sizes and capabilities that can withstand pH ranges of 2–12, so they can be washed down with caustic cleaning chemicals with no negative consequences. Manufacturers also incorporate a lot of the same designs in the robots that food processors see in their own equipment, e.g., no flat surfaces to collect standing water and stainless steel materials. In addition, food-grade oils are now available that don’t reduce performance.
Another reason is that stigmas surrounding robots are going away, especially in regard to food processing. Robots have always gotten a bad rap because many believe they’re putting good people out of work.
That’s simply not true, though. Robots aren’t taking people’s jobs. Instead, companies have discovered they can put a robot in place on the line to accomplish a repetitive, menial task, and then move that worker into a better opportunity elsewhere that is more suited to their skillset. This allows the company to get a better return on their investments across the entire line. The robot does a repetitive job no one really wants, and human workers become a more valuable asset to the company elsewhere.
Along those same lines, robots are well suited to positions, environments and working conditions that aren’t optimal for human workers. Need to keep a room really cold or hot? Why subject a human worker to that when you can put a robot in?
And then there’s safety (worker and product) and productivity. When the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020, a lot of processors started looking at robots as a way to protect their workers, mitigate contamination and meet production requirements. They needed to space people apart to protect them–not an easy task when you have limited room in your facility. Robots could help. And in addition to helping keep workers safe and therefore reducing the risk of contamination, robots enhance productivity because they’re never sick.
What are some ways processors can evaluate if robotics is a good fit for their application and operations?
First and foremost, look at your return on investment (ROI) to make sure robotics is going to be good for your company’s bottom line. Many companies see a two-year-or-less payback when they invest in robotics. Need help calculating your ROI? Use the EnSight tool to get an estimated ROI. Remember, this is only an estimate, but it’s a great place to start.
You should also evaluate your overall operations for areas where issues could be solved by robots. Do you have processes that are repetitive and being done by human workers who would better serve the company elsewhere? Are there environments where hygiene and sanitation could be improved? Cold or hot areas that aren’t ideal for humans? Remember, robots don’t get tired or injured from repetitive motions, robots don’t bring in germs and robots don’t mind extreme temperatures.
A good integrator who is familiar with the food processing industry, like EnSight Solutions, can help with this initial assessment. They can evaluate your operations and advise you on areas you could automate. They can develop 3D simulations showing what your “new” line would look like, and then provide some proposed cycle times. They can even perform some live testing with you, which is paramount to ensuring robots are actually right for your line.
What are some potential hurdles to adopting robotics in food processing?
The main hurdle with robotics in food processing, as with many things in the food processing industry, is hygiene. You have to make sure every aspect of the equipment is hygienic–the robot, the base, the controller and its storage area, the end of arm tooling, etc. Everything has to be cleanable. And that’s something big to consider. When it’s time to clean the machine, are you going to have to swap out pieces to clean them? However you do it, cleaning needs to be taken into account, and you’re going to have to develop a plan for it.
Stäubli can help with this. They have a chemical lab in Europe where they send the robot parts and subject it to chemicals. They can also take your process and test it out on their robots to make sure it will work and not cause issues down the road. The Stäubli team can even recommend a process and plan.
Another hurdle is going to be the complexity of the actual application and product. The food processing industry is fast, versatile and inconsistent. So, you need end-of-arm tooling that can be adapted to a variety of scenarios to avoid changing out the actual machine to fit the needs of the moment. Another option is to look at changing your line to present the robots the most uniform process and product possible.
Again, Stäubli and EnSight Solutions can help you overcome this hurdle by reviewing your line and testing your process and product on a robot.
Do processors need to train personnel onsite to work with the robotics?
Yes, and not just the integrator who’s going to build the machine and program it. The processor should ensure the end user(s) and those working in the robot’s vicinity are comfortable operating the robot, understand what the robot is expecting and know how your machines are communicating with the robot.
This will help avoid a common issue Stäubli has run into–the robot is blamed for any issues on the line. In reality, the issue is often user error, e.g., a safety door circuit wasn’t closed completely. To help avoid these issues, Stäubli offers user training on-site at the processing facility or in-house at the Stäubli facility.
What should processors look for in a robotic automation solution provider?
One of the most important things is to find an integrator/service provider who understands the food processing industry. You know that industrial processing equipment and food processing equipment are significantly different, but if your integrator doesn’t know that, you’re going to encounter issues.
It only takes one bad inspection to shut your whole plant down because the equipment isn’t right for food processing.
That’s where EnSight Solutions can help. We have more than 50 years of experience manufacturing food processing equipment and helping set up food processing lines. We’ve partnered directly with Stäubli. This means our engineers speak your language and understand your sanitation needs. In fact, our engineers complete sanitation training through Commercial Food Sanitation (CFS), which helps them understand the process. We can design, build and mock up the whole cell you’re going to integrate. We’ll then bring it in and set it up.
In addition, make sure whoever you choose is going to be a good partner to your business. Make sure you can trust them to have your back for the long run. Remember, you’re teaming up with someone who’s putting a machine in your facility that you will be using for decades. They also need to be willing to help you work through any kinks that pop up in the integration.
You want someone who’s going to stand by their product and provide you the service you need when you need it, as well as help you understand the preventative and curative maintenance needs of the machine.
EnSight Solutions and Stäubli would be honored to be that partner for you.
What could the future of robotics in food processing look like?
The need for and acceptance of robotics in food processing is likely to grow. Especially in the aftermath of COVID-19, processors have become more aware of the dangers of having their workers in close proximity to each other. So, they’re going to continue to look for ways to space them out to protect their workers and their product.
In addition, the industry is going to get smarter with its data, which will help in regard to maintenance. Right now, it’s all preventative and curative maintenance–but what about predictive maintenance? That’s where data can be analyzed for trends in performance, and then the processors can use that to make changes/repairs before a part fails. If everything is networked, the manufacturer/integrator could even be monitoring your systems, and then contact you if they see an issue on the rise in order to schedule maintenance.
Automated guided vehicles (AGVs) are also going to become more prominent. AGVs can really help automate the production process by keeping things moving quickly. For example, the AGV can come in, grab a pallet, pull it out and replace it with a new one without the robot even having to slow down.
Speaking of automation, there’s also the possibility for robotic sanitation, where robots can start cleaning each other. This will help with the sanitation process further, while also protecting human workers from potentially harmful chemicals.
As robots and safeguards become more fine-tuned, the food processing industry is likely to see more examples of collaborative applications–where humans and robots work side-by-side to accomplish a task.
Does a processor have to replace their entire line to automate the process?
It is possible for food processors to revamp a line without replacing everything. The encoders robots use to “see” can be added into your existing conveyor. This will introduce the product to the robot, so it can do its job even on your line that’s already in place.
Of course, if you’re considering automation and robotics, it might be a good time to actually evaluate your entire line and process. That will help you determine if there are other opportunities for improvement. Many lines and processes have been “inherited” from years past, and processors don’t want to make changes because they’re afraid of the costs, including downtime. But, instead of just evaluating one section of your process, evaluate your entire process! You might just find that there are other areas where you can get a great ROI by revamping the process.
What is a realistic range of picks per minute in the food industry with robots?
The food industry is mostly low-payload, high-volume production. That means you’re quickly moving small parts into a packaging line. While the Stäubli TP80 has been able to perform up to 200 parts per minute, it is likely to give 150–170 in the field. On the other hand, the SCARA models get up to 100 parts per minute, and the six-axis versions get 50–70 parts per minute. So, it really comes down to which robot works best for you, what you’re going to have it doing and what your product is. And obviously, if you have a number of robots working together, you’re going to increase that productivity exponentially.
Again, this is something Stäubli can discuss with you in the evaluation process.
What are the cybersecurity risks of integrating more robotics and automation in the food processing industry?
Unfortunately, any type of automation you introduce is going to have some cybersecurity risks involved. The more you network machines together, the greater the risk.
But, you can mitigate the risks by keeping the robots and cells as standalone units. They don’t have to communicate with any other machine, which means there’s little way for someone to hack into them. If you need data out of it, you connect a laptop. And even then, you’re only going to get data from that robot, not your entire network.
Of course, you can also implement firewalls and other networking safety measures. One such option that EnSight Solutions offers is a Cosy, which is a way to ensure the robot does not communicate out. We have also implemented key systems, where power is not supplied to the Cosy until a maintenance worker unlocks it with a key.
If you would like any more information about robotics in food processing, please contact EnSight Solutions and speak to a sales specialist. Click here to locate and contact your sales specialist.
If you’re interested in learning more about Stäubli and robotics, visit the Stäubli website.