Sales of robotic systems took a big hit last year as the recession put a brake on investment but food and beverage resisted the downward slide better than other industries. Orders from the food and drink companies fell 10 per cent compared to a 45 per cent drop average across industries, according to statistics from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR).
One of the reasons sales to the food and drink industry proved relatively resilient is that more opportunities are opening up for robotics in the sector. Within the food industry, dairy and beverage are leading the way.
Greater efficiency and speed are two of the biggest draws of such robots. For example, robotics specialist Kuka said that installing a robot for the production of ‘Good Morning Juice’ at an Arla Foods factory Sweden increased the number of pallets that could be handled from 50 to 100 a week by hand to 600 to 700 a week. In addition, the system reduced labour demands as one person could operate the robot without needing to work on it full time.
Reducing demands on labour can be a big plus point for robots especially when labour is expensive and in high demand. This may explain why take up of robots in food and drink has been particularly high in Australia where the economy has been operating at full employment.
Robots can also take over unpleasant jobs. In breweries, for example, robots are seen working in very humid conditions, stacking heavy barrels.
Brewing provides an illustration of how robot manufacturers have had to learn how to adapt their technologies to local environments as the highly aggressive cleaning agents and disinfectants used can attack the seals of robots. Robots made with acid resistant stainless can be a solution to this threat.
As robotics experts learn more about the various requirements of different food and drink manufacturers at different stages of production, the potential uses for robotics in the industry grows.
Up stream uses
This is reflected in the trend for robots to be seen more widely and not just right at the end of the production line. In beverage, for example, robots are being used more and more frequently in filling systems.
And Brian Huse, director of marketing at the Robotic Industries Association, told FoodProductionDaily.com that robots are making serious inroads in the dairy industry as well. This he described as “one of the best kept secrets in robotics”.
Robots can now be found all the way up the chain at the milking stage. Huse said DeLaval and Lely are notable leaders in the market for milking robots.
As the global economy moves out of recession and financial restraints are eased, uptake of robots is expected to increase again and their use tipped spread further across the production line.