The human impact of robots in food
Shifting from a labor focus to automation can offer processors improved safety, efficiency
According to research by the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, almost a third of food processing operations already use robotics in their facilities. What’s more, half of those surveyed said they will increase their level of automation in the next three to five years. However, not every food manufacturer is an automation convert.
TM Robotics has installed thousands of robots in plants around the world, including North and South America, India, Russia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Australia. In partnership with Toshiba Machine, the integrator/distributor offers a comprehensive range of six-axis, SCARA and Cartesian robotics systems.
Nigel Smith, managing director of six-axis robot distribution in the UK for TM Robotics, has a few thoughts as to why not all food and beverage manufacturers are jumping on the bandwagon as soon as they can.
FE: Why are some food and beverage companies hesitant about employing robots instead of people?
Nigel Smith: The industry tends to fall into two distinct camps: Those who see automation as an opportunity to improve processes, against a smaller minority who perceive it as a threat to their business. But, considering the widespread data that proves the potential productivity rewards of automation, some manufacturers are still hesitant. A common complaint is the concern about reputation and the reduction of jobs.
FE: Can’t robotics relieve workers of potentially dangerous jobs?
Smith: Many tasks in food manufacturing and processing can easily be automated — think loading, unloading, picking, placing and bagging. In fact, today’s robotics equipment is capable of completing these tasks more quickly and efficiently than a human employee could. Ultimately, the industry needs to see a shift from labor-intensive production, to production focused on enhancing the knowledge and skills of its employees.
FE: So how does a food processor rethink automation and labor?
Smith: Rather than focusing on the potential job losses caused by automation, these manufacturers should instead ask how they can use their newly freed resources to their advantage. A manufacturer that saves money on labor by using automation has two options. Lower its prices or generate more profit—both of which can result in increased investment, higher demand and in turn, more opportunity for employment.
FE: But, what about a food processor’s reputation? Doesn’t automation hurt a processor’s image?
Smith: Frankly, Europe’s food and drink industry doesn’t have the best reputation for its use of cheap labor, particularly in wealthy nations like the United Kingdom. In fact, Britain’s food manufacturers are reliant on employing migrant workers for 30 per cent of their staff—a larger segment than any other industry in the UK.
By reducing the number of menial roles on the factory floor, this reliance on imported labor is also reduced. Put simply, automation isn’t replacing jobs, but paving the way for better ones. It is vital that food manufacturers make this clear when deploying automation into their facilities.
FE: Can automation reduce accidents?
Smith: Automation doesn’t only improve the quality of jobs on the factory floor but improves the working environment for employees by reducing the likelihood of injuries.
According to the Health and Safety Executive, over 30 per cent of injuries reported in the food and drink industry are related to manual handling. It’s a striking figure, when you consider approximately 120,000 people working in the sector are injured each year.
Many of these injuries are related to packaging, boxing and un-boxing. Manual handling-related injuries include accidents that occur when packing products, pushing wheeled tacks and stacking or un-stacking containers such as boxes and crates. However, all these tasks are easily automated.
FE: Give us an example.
Smith: Take bin picking. Using a six-axis robot with advanced 3D vision software, the bin picking process becomes fully automated—and cycle times can be as fast as 0.7 seconds. Without automation to complete this task, human operators would be required to pick items manually from the box and place them onto the next part of the manufacturing process—a seemingly safe task, but one that carries manual handling risks.
Rather than risk it, automation can also be used before this process by using a robotic box opening solution. The intelligent box opening device (IBOD) is just one example of this kind of automation. Automatically measuring the size of every case or box that comes into the facility, the system can automatically find the programmed cut lines.
The machine is capable of cutting up to 750 boxes per hour—all without requiring a human employee to handle a blade. By automating this process, food manufacturers can completely eliminate the chance of employees being cut or injured by a blade while on the factory floor. Ultimately, the more processes that are automated, the lesser the likelihood of injuries.
FE: Robots have had a successful implementation history, haven’t they?
Smith: Automation has been an essential part of manufacturing since the first six-axis robots were introduced to automotive production in the 1960s. Since then, a growing number of sectors have embraced the technology, including food processors. However, as automation and robotics continually become more affordable and accessible, we’re likely to see an even more widespread uptake of this equipment.
Whether you’re an automation skeptic or enthusiast, there’s no doubting the rise of the robots. The only thing to make sure of is that your facility doesn’t get left behind.
For more information: www.tmrobotics.co.uk.