When you think of robot safety, that usually means safety for humans. Yet in the case of food and beverage production, safety can mean preventing human contamination of the food. You can’t sterilize a human worker, but you can eliminate contaminants from mechanical equipment such as robots.
Robot maker ABB has lately been creating robots for the sterilized environments in food and beverage production. The goal is to reduce recalls due to food contamination while also making manufacturing processes uniform, efficient, and flexible.
The Food and Drug Administration introduced the Food Safety Modernization Act in 2011. The law came into full effect is 2016. The regulation puts strict guidelines on safety and sanitization standards for US food manufacturers, as well as companies hoping to export into the US. Add to this a slew of recent oversights in contamination control across the world, and you begin to see changes in food and beverage production.
Consequently, food plant managers are investing in digitalization and robotics to improve safety and efficiency to meet these standards. “Food and beverage requires special attention because of safety issues, particularly the safety of the product. Recalls are costly both in real terms and in the damage to a brand. Moving to robotic production improves consistency of production and the cleanliness of manufacturing space,” Tatjana Milenovic, global marketing and portfolio manager of ABB’s Food and Beverage Program, told Design News. “People bring contaminants into the food and beverage manufacturing space. People have contaminants on their hands and head. Robots can be sterile.”
Food handling regulations are forcing the food and beverage industry into the automation future. “Food and beverage generally lags in technology adoption, but now there is a focus in the industry to make a leap jump in picking, packing, and palletizing over the next five years,” said Milenovic. “Customers want to produce more with existing lines and capabilities, and the implementation of robots helps this effort.”
The Same Oreo Across the Globe
One of the challenges in food and beverage is consistency. Often that means consistency across multiple plants. Robots can produce the same processes in facilities that span the globe. “Consistency is an issue. Whether you’re producing food in Europe, China, or Viet Nam, you want consistency at all plants,” said Milenovic. “The robots help make sure that each plant is producing product in the same way.”
Flexibility is also an issue in food and beverage. “Ten years ago, we had two types of yogurt. Now we have hundreds. One company we work with was equipped for two types of yogurt just a few years ago. Now they have 98,” said Milenovic. “The variety in food products is growing exponentially, and that requires flexibility in processing and packaging. The robot is adaptable. It can be designed for processes that increase productivity and product quality.”
Reducing the Dreaded Downtime
One major factor in the efficiency in food processing is uptime. Unanticipated shutdowns due to maintenance issues are costly. “The main reason for downtime in food and beverage is because of the motor and the time to takes to get it running again. You have hundreds of motors on a food and beverage line,” said Milenovic. “To improve efficiency and avoid downtime, you can monitor the motor’s health. Our robots are equipped for remote connectivity to avoid downtime with preventive maintenance. If things go wrong, you can connect remotely to conduct repairs or alert a technician.”
Part of the flexibility of robots comes from the wide variety of grippers. Some food processes require that the robot pick up a muffin or other delicate items. “The robot is an arm and a brain, but other components such as grippers also play a roll,” said Milenovic. “The handling of the food items can require specialized gripper technology. We have an operation where eggs are being handled, so the grippers matter.”
Robots are bringing more to the manufacturing floor than offsets in labor costs. One blatant sign of that is the deployment of robots in cheap labor territories. “Robotics is booming in China, even with its low-cost workforce,” said Milenovic. “The demand for increased capability, food safety, and product variety is driving robotics installation in developing markets.”
Rob Spiegel has covered automation and control for 17 years, 15 of them for Design News. Other topics he has covered include supply chain technology, alternative energy, and cyber security. For 10 years he was owner and publisher of the food magazine Chile Pepper.
Photo courtesy of ABB