Now is the time for Food and Drink SMEs to invest in automation

There's never been a better time for food and drink SMEs to invest in robots for the workplace. Sales and exports are booming, and robots are more powerful than ever. Paul Wilkinson, Commercial & Information Systems Manager at Pacepacker Services, examines the current challenges of the food and drink industry and details how robots can assist SMEs to boost productivity and compete with larger industry players.

The adoption of robots in industry has been chequered in the UK. A Centre of Economics and Business Research report states that the UK had a much smaller rate of adoption than in other developed, industrial countries, at 33 robots per 10,000 employees. In fact, the same report found that the number of new industrial robots installed in 2015 actually dropped 21 per cent from 2014. However, there are signs that UK manufacturers' attitudes to robots are changing rapidly.

Previously robots were seen as the preserve of larger industries, but there is a growing awareness that robots can offer similar productivity benefits to the SMEs that make up the bulk of the UK's economy. Although prices have remained stable, advances in both software and hardware make today's robots faster and much more powerful, ensuring that they are capable of many more tasks.

The food and drink industry in particular can benefit from the adoption of robots. Food and beverage production is becoming more critical to the economy, especially for the export sector. The Food and Drink Federation recently released figures that said the first quarter of 2017 was the largest on record, growing 8.3 per cent year-on-year to £4.9bn, and this follows bumper 2016 figures. The organisation credits the weak pound and better promotion abroad for the increase. In periods of growth like this, companies are more likely to look at capital investment and consider more innovative ways to increase productivity. Robots are likely to be one of the investments that can gain the best yield for the manufacturer.

With Brexit on the horizon, there are fears that tariffs may affect this growth, while making it harder to recruit workers for the industry. Oxford University's Migration Observatory estimates 36 per cent of process workers in the food and drink industry are foreign born, so a recruitment shortage is a real possibility in the near future. Robots can fill this recruitment gap while providing additional benefits to manufacturers. Robots may have an initial capital investment, but provide savings over the longer term by increasing productivity. They also cut out a lot of the paperwork and red tape that can hurt businesses - robots don't need holidays, pensions or salaries. Technological advances also mean today's robots can work safely in the same areas as existing staff without the need for additional outlay on protective measures.

Freeing up manpower

In the food and beverage industry, robots are mainly found at the back end of the line - bagging, packaging and palletising products. These robots are fast and reliable, making them perfectly capable of freeing up manpower to assist elsewhere in the factory. The key to these improvements has been advances in software and hardware, which make robots more flexible and easier to use. For example, there are a wide variety of robotic arm extensions that enable robots to deal with almost any type of container or packaging. Programming can also be done offline, allowing files to be set up beforehand, and quickly downloaded when the process changes and ensuring changeover times are kept to a minimum.

One area that has concerned manufacturers in the past is the disruption caused when initially implementing robots in the production line. This can be minimised by partnering with an integrator with the domain experience, combined with high-level engineering, automation, IT and operational skills. There is often tremendous value to be gained from working with companies that have refined their skills by taking on complex and bespoke projects. Having a solid track record of integrating disparate automation platforms is equally valuable, as it enables best practice to be shared between different applications.

An integrator with intimate knowledge of the food and drinks industry, such as Pacepacker, can offer advice from the very start of the process on the correct set up, robots, software and even provide tailored training to ensure implementation is painless. For example, Pacepacker and Festo have partnered to deliver training days to customers that can provide answers to any questions and advice on the latest technological advancements.

Strong supplier partnerships are equally critical to project success. As testimony, Pacepacker recently sourced equipment from nine different original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) to build its most complex case loading and palletising line to-date. Everything came from British-based suppliers, including FANUC, Endoline, Capture Automation, LAC Conveyors and Festo. In total, the line comprised over 15 individual elements, including a mechanical end effector designed by Pacepacker that grabs hold of bottles in a single layer. The operation, which previously relied entirely on manual labour, has more than doubled processing and packing output for this client and is also reducing waste and eliminating workforce repetitive strain injuries.

Although the UK may have fallen behind the curve in the adoption of robots in industry, this is changing as manufacturers look to increase productivity. SMEs in particular have been reluctant to make the initial outlay on robots, and this is especially true for the food and drink industry. Europe-wide, SMEs with fewer than 249 employees account for more than 50 per cent of the food and drink industry turnover. With Brexit looming, and fears of an upcoming shortage of manpower for the industry, there is no better time to look at automation. Robots are now more powerful and flexible, and assistance is readily at hand to ensure the transition goes without a hitch.

For more information please visit www.pacepacker.com.

More from Pacepacker Services Ltd

Using Industry 4:0 to future-proof automation projects

Posted 3 years ago

Pacepacker heading to EEF nationals

Posted 3 years ago

Double packing boost for global hand hygiene company

Posted 3 years ago

Pacepacker repeats double automation innovation award win

Posted 3 years ago

Double packing boost for global hand hygiene company

Posted 3 years ago

Pacepacker Pallet+ versus robot teach pendants at PPMA 2017

Posted 3 years ago

Is automation destined to rewrite all our futures?

Posted 4 years ago

Why do we blame robots when the line stops?

Posted 4 years ago

Pacepacker robots deep dive into BDUs

Posted 4 years ago

Live palletising time trials showcase new Pallet+ technology

Posted 4 years ago

Nimble palletising robots give factories more flexibility

Posted 4 years ago

Systems integrator selection: How to pick the right one

Posted 4 years ago

Pacepacker forecasts the next packaging automation trends

Posted 4 years ago

Robot systems that flex to agricultural packers needs

Posted 4 years ago

Family miller first on the E-Pac case

Posted 4 years ago

Pacepacker shakes hands on new Chinese deal at PPMA TOTAL 2016

Posted 4 years ago

Pacepacker Services offers Automation Awareness Workshops

Posted 4 years ago

Olympic success leads to robot investment at Speciality Breads

Posted 5 years ago

Retail innovations ripen demand for fresh produce automation

Posted 5 years ago

Pacepacker proves its pet food pedigree with case loading cell

Posted 5 years ago

Pacepacker announces new case loading line at PPMA TOTAL Show

Posted 5 years ago

Buying by the scoop: The rise of unpackaged grocery shopping

Posted 5 years ago

Pacepacker makes light work of heavy potato sacks

Posted 5 years ago

New bagging technology for horse feed manufacturer

Posted 5 years ago

Foodie fads spark robot rethink

Posted 5 years ago

Automated palletising systems avoid injury from manual handling

Posted 5 years ago

Reinvesting in your palletising operation: 2016 AIA tax relief

Posted 5 years ago

Case-loading methods for retailers and food factories at Foodex

Posted 5 years ago

Case-loading cell demonstrates Pacepacker's Cartesian potential

Posted 5 years ago

Double award success for Pacepacker and partners

Posted 5 years ago

Case-loading prototype shows Pacepacker's Cartesian capabilities

Posted 5 years ago

Pacepacker's simple product swap system strikes gold

Posted 5 years ago

Vertical tray packing solved

Posted 5 years ago

Vacuums for pick and place: suckers for efficiency

Posted 6 years ago

Robot builder provides career signpost to STEM students

Posted 6 years ago

Fact or fabrication: Busting the myths surrounding robotics

Posted 6 years ago

FastPac line for high-speed, versatile bulk bagging

Posted 6 years ago

Pacepacker tells £500k plant equipment tax relief secret

Posted 6 years ago

Filling pallets - it's not always as easy as it looks!

Posted 6 years ago

Retailers call for space-saving mixed-product trays

Posted 6 years ago

Backing British growth: UK food producers need to automate

Posted 6 years ago

Compact Cartesian Palletiser has small floor footprint

Posted 6 years ago

Automation payback - 10 tips for achieving ROI in 12 months

Posted 6 years ago

Pacepacker teams up with Anglia Ruskin University

Posted 6 years ago

Pacepacker rolls with UPM's modular food-safe conveyor

Posted 6 years ago

Automation alliance scoops Food Processing Award

Posted 6 years ago

Video: Michael Portillo interviews Pacepacker's Dennis Allison

Posted 6 years ago

Three-dimensional alliance fosters robotic innovations

Posted 6 years ago

Cartesian - taking the sting out of automation investment

Posted 6 years ago

New tray denester tackles production bottlenecks

Posted 6 years ago

More technical articles