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The UK food industry lags way behind other European countries in adopting robotic production techniques. But dramatic price reductions in systems could see improved take-up, says Julia Pierce

When it comes to the adoption of new technologies in the field of automation, the UK food industry is constantly accused of lagging behind other countries in western Europe.

And by way of an example, the 2006 World Robotics survey showed that in 2005 around 70 robots were sold to our food and beverage industry compared to approximately 3,500 in the same sector in Germany. ‘The amount of automation is an embarrassment to UK manufacturing,’ said David Bradford, managing director of automation solutions firm RTS Flexible Systems.

Fifteen months after that report, he said there are still frustrations with uptake of systems, though some companies have developed the vision to use automation as an effective cost-cutting tool. ‘The technology is here, but getting people to use it is the challenge,’ he said. But why are UK firms still lagging behind? ‘This is partly down to lack of confidence in the economy, the influence of supermarkets and the length of their contracts, as well as taxation,’ said Bradford. ‘The rules in Germany allow expenditure to be offset against tax in a single year rather then having to be spread out — making investment more attractive.’

‘The food industry suffers from a lot of external pressures,’ added Steve Land, industry segment manager for food and packaging at Festo. ‘This includes minimising the processing of food, owing to customer demand. There is also price pressure on goods, which limits the amount of money available.’

Despite such fears over the initial outlay and recouping costs, the pressure to automate is growing.

‘In the past decade robotic automation has become an established solution to solving productivity problems in the food industry such as palletising,’ said Nick Walsh, food segment manager at ABB Robotics. He said that robots are finding new applications within the industry owing to a number of factors including the development of integrated vision systems and fast, accurate conveyor tracking, and intelligent systems for portion control.

He added that the price of robots is continuing to fall relative to the direct and indirect costs of labour — which could perhaps prove to be a tipping point with manufacturers.

Software-based technologies are a particular area where systems’ costs have dramatically reduced. Jeff Whiting, commercial communications manager at Mitsubishi Electric said that price reductions mean the industry is now becoming more willing to use innovations such as the company’s manufacturing execution system (MES) module. This sits at automation level and communicates directly with manufacturing databases, integrating with both SQL and Oracle-based systems. ‘The price has come down from £18,000 to £20,000 for the module and associated engineering to around £1,800,’ he said.

The company has also recently started marketing its MX for Business package, which uses an Ethernet connection, and determines the operational effectiveness of equipment to maximise production. ‘It helps iron out bottlenecks in the system, as well as loss and wastage,’ said Whiting.

If thrift is the key, then examples of the capacity of automated systems for this are rife. RTS recently installed state-of-the-art 4-axis robots in a new automated bread tin store at Hull baker William Jackson and Son to increase flexibility and capacity of production while reducing overheads.

The solution promises a return on investment within two years by redeploying labour and reducing replacement costs of bread tins. Other innovations from the company reaching the market include a high-speed robotic cell for picking and packing pots, such as yogurts or desserts, into trays.

The company is also looking at the integration of 3D cameras into its vision systems. This will allow robots to make better decisions over whether products are damaged and therefore worth packing.

New technologies have even found their way around problems such as extremes of temperature, solving situations that could otherwise end in and expensive health and safety problem. Earlier this year, for instance, Industrial Automation (IAL) helped UK catering products distributor 3663 First for Foodservice solve a materials handling problem with KFC.

After heeding recommendation from health and safety regulations, the company was keen to avoid manual handling of trays of fresh chicken that could exceeded the 25kg maximum weight limits recommended under health and safety regulations. As a result, a machine that transfers a pallet-full of trays on to a set of dolleys was invented.

The particular challenge for IAL was that the machines are operating where temperatures are between -20C and +20C; this presents problems with condensation and the performance of lubricants for moving parts.

So, given the obvious advantages of such systems, why isn’t the message getting across? Land said the key to encouraging automation is in understanding the company’s goals and priorities and tailoring a solution to fit.

With the ever-increasing pressure to ramp up production and so improve profits, Land has noticed the rising popularity of products including fast switching technology. He also notes that many firms are seeking to reduce the number of suppliers of their automation products, while focusing on early equipment management and vertical start-up.

‘This can be a challenge as you have to be an expert in all areas,’ he said. ‘There is a lot of focus on the front end of design of new equipment, involving much simulation and calculation at the very earliest point. This allows machinery to go straight into a factory and work from the outset, moving straight to target efficiency.’

With suppliers providing good hi-tech solutions at a much lower price and working hard to reduce or even remove downtime at installation, barriers to automation are fast being removed. Given its advantages and the progress being made, automation makes good sense and is worth exploring by those wishing to stay one step ahead of the competition.