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How food manufacturers can benefit from robotic automation

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This article from Fanuc outlines how food manufacturers can benefit from robotic automation, typically for pick-and-place and packaging applications, with the company claiming that enquiries for this type of application are up 35 per cent compared with the previous year.

How food manufacturers can benefit from robotic automationThe UK food industry has developed an increased interest in robots. Over the last 12 months Fanuc has seen enquiries from food manufacturers looking to automate their food handling and packing operations increase by 35 per cent. Spurring on the food industry, Fanuc aims to inspire manufacturers with the development of a food picker cell (combining both articulated arm and delta style food grade robots) which performs typical loading and unloading packing scenarios.

John Rainer, Regional Sales Manager of Fanuc UK, comments: "Food manufacturers face a number of challenges in their production operations. In a manual process, they must deal with ergonomic issues, labour availability and the uncertainty of increasing costs associated with legislation. In an automated process, accommodating rapid-fire product and pack changes driven by sustainability initiatives and shelf impact, as well understanding and improving key performance measures such as Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), are key. And in any process, food safety is an overriding concern on the minds of processors, as the consequences of food-borne illness and/or massive product recalls have affected a wide range of food categories."

Integrated machine vision systems

Fanuc's robots have been designed specifically to work in very harsh environments and, in addition to being smaller, stronger and faster, they incorporate the latest vision technology to improve the robot's 'sight'. John says: "We have strengthened the business case for robot adoption by providing the necessary functionality that a food producer needs."

The IP67-certified food picker cell (measuring 4x2.2m and 2.35m tall) is designed to orientate and pack a wide variety of unpackaged and packaged foods, including confectionery, baked, snack and dairy items. Incorporating a ceiling-mounted four-axis M3iA/6s delta-style loading robot, capable of 120 picks per minute, this robot has a 6kg payload and a work envelope of 0.5m deep by 1.350m diameter. The delta-style system orientates products taken from a conveyor and places them into a plastic blister tray ready for secondary packing. With its white epoxy finish and food-grade grease, the arm can withstand tough cleaning regimes which use acid and alkaline products.

Flexibility for tight workspaces

At the other end of the cell, an M430iA/2P articulated arm robot demonstrates a typical unloading scenario, removing products from the trays back onto the conveyor. Mountable in a variety of positions including floor, wall or invert, the six-axis M430 maximises flexibility for tight workspaces and can also complete 120 cycles per minute – matching the delta.

Although the cost of a robot has reduced (for example the cost of Fanuc's latest palletiser is 7 per cent lower compared with its predecessor, yet has a 12 per cent increase in payload capacity), this alone has not improved their viability in the food industry. John comments: "Many barriers to entry have been addressed; for example, only in the last 12–18 months have we made available IP69K-certified robots to meet the toughest of hygiene standards." Over the course of the last 10 years, food manufacturers have faced greater pressure to adhere to increasingly stringent levels of compliance, whether responding to individual Retailer Codes of Practice (COP) or the requirements set out by the British Retail Consortium. John adds: "Manufacturers looking to improve hygiene, by removing the uncertainty that the human element brings to the equation, have been driving the need for food-grade robots.

"The incredible pace at which vision technology is developing, now with a more economical price tag, greatly improves the accuracy of sorting, picking and placing countless food objects randomly placed across numerous lines."

Visual line tracking used by the M3iA/6S to locate the parts, incorporates integrated queue management, so that up to four robots can be directed by a single Fanuc iRVision camera. The picker cell also uses Fanuc's new iRPickTool software which simplifies setup for line tracking systems and minimises programming for customers with picking applications. The software divides incoming product so that each robot in the system picks an equal number of products. It can also assign a specific percentage of products for each robot to pick.

Now with energy reducing technology built into all Fanuc products to reduce power usage with savings in the region of 20 per cent or more, and guaranteed 25 year parts availability (including obsolescence avoidance), there’s never been a better time for food producers to invest in robotics.

To learn more about robotic automation for pick-and-place operations, please visit www.fanuc.eu.

 
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