Drives & Controls November/December 2023

31 November/December 2023 AUTOMATION n with the help of automation. For example, while the global population may be growing, many developed economies face a demographic timebomb, with an ageing workforce unable to replenish the supply of labour. This adds considerable pressure to an already tight labour market. And it’s not simply numbers that are being impacted as many older workers approach retirement. Their skills will also be exiting the workforce over the next few years. Robots can not only help plug gaps in recruitment, but their ability to take on boring, unpleasant or hazardous tasks, makes food and beverage production lines much more attractive places to work, supporting staff retention. Similarly, robotic automation can help to reduce the waste and other problems associated with inconsistent quality. Factors such as operator boredom in repetitive processes, or a failure to understand instructions, can conspire to raise the risk of errors. Human error can affect not only the product being made, but also the stock of ingredients needed to produce a replacement, pushing up the cost of production per unit and squeezing margins in an industry where margins are already extremely tight. Other potential ramifications can include everything from increased turnaround times and delayed deliveries, through to lost orders as customers turn to alternative suppliers. By contrast, robots almost eliminate the possibility of human error, working tirelessly and consistently to produce precise, errorfree results. Enhanced flexibility Consumer food and drink preferences are notoriously fickle, requiring producers to make frequent adjustments to their product line-ups and manufacturing processes. In addition, the events of recent years have demonstrated all too clearly how vulnerable many supply chains can be to disruption. Robotic automation cannot eliminate these up- and downstream challenges, but it can help food manufacturers go a long way towards mitigating them by making their processes more adaptable and resilient. For example, sudden fluctuations in order sizes and delivery deadlines can cause problems where processes are not sufficiently flexible. Automated systems can now ramp up production as necessary, without the need to recruit temporary personnel. Furthermore, automated production lines make it easier to change over between different products, reducing downtime and making it economical to manufacture a wider variety of products in shorter runs. For example, easy-to-use interfaces and pre-programmed settings increasingly allow changes to be made to a robot’s operating routines at the touch of a button. The benefits of improved product quality and consistency, coupled with enhanced profitability and product throughput, provide a strong case for implementing robotic automation. However, several perceived obstacles have previously held some potential users back from investing in robots – especially the SMEs that make up a big chunk of the food and beverage ecosystem. More recently, those obstacles have been eroded significantly, paving the way for a new wave of automation across food and beverage organisations. Take cost, for example. Food and beverage is a low-margin industry and this has historically been cited as a reason that the sector has been slow to invest in automation. However, that reasoning is now being flipped on its head. The decision to automate with robots can unlock new levels of productivity and competitiveness that will be vital to protect slim profit margins in the future. At the same time, the price of today’s systems is around 10–20% of what they cost 20 years ago. For many cost-conscious companies – and for SMEs, in particular – this increased affordability has brought automation within their reach for the first time. Equipment suppliers have helped to bring prices down in various ways, such as offering dedicated packages for specific operations, such as slicing, or picking and packing. This makes automated systems easier to specify, deploy and commission. Another traditional barrier that is rapidly being broken down is the perceived complexity of robots and other automated technologies. There has been a step-change in the ease with which operators can interact with these technologies, including developments in programming and operating software, with today’s robots needing comparatively little training to program and operate. This opens up a raft of new application opportunities among users who might previously have been deterred by a perceived lack of in-house expertise. For example, ABB’s Wizard programming software for its cobots and small IRB 1100 industrial robots uses Blockly, an opensource visual coding method that presents programming language or code as interlocking blocks. It can be used to create robot application programs without needing specialised training or expertise in robot programming. What’s more, suppliers are increasingly offering remote software tools such as RobotStudio, which enables robotic systems to be trained and tested offline using virtual models before rolling out new capabilities on the shop floor. This boosts the adaptability of these systems by massively reducing the effort and potential on-site disruption associated with introducing new tasks. The explosion onto the scene of AI (artificial intelligence) also deserves a mention. It is proving to be truly transformative by effectively enabling robots to learn on the job. Combining AI with new developments in machine vision will allow robots to act safely and reliably in increasingly unstructured environments. It seems certain that the rate of adoption of automation technologies in general – and robots, in particular – will grow dramatically as future food and beverage businesses look to strengthen their resilience in the face of an unpredictable business environment. n Software tools, such as ABB’s Wizard, make it easy to create robot applications without needing specialised training or robot programming expertise