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SPECIAL EDITION - ROBOTICS AND AUTOMATION

Food sector set to embrace robotic technology - BARA

By Rory Harrington , 29-Sep-2010
Last updated the 29-Sep-2010 at 14:10 GMT

Take up of robotic technology in the food sector is set to steadily increase as processors are forced to seek further efficiency gains and demand could challenge that of the automotive industry within a decade, said the head of a leading trade body.

In the first part of our special edition on Robotics and Automation, FoodProductionDaily.com gives an overview of robotics in the food industry, examines why the sector has been slow to embrace the technology and forecasts what future take up trends could be.

Overview and recession

According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), by the end of 2009 there were over 23,000 robots operational within the food industry – just three per cent of the global total. The automotive industry led the way on almost 364,000 units, followed by the electrical and electronics sector on 144,00 and 113,000 in the plastics and chemical industry. The metal industry had around 98,000 units in use.

In Europe, Germany, Italy and France have the greatest rates of robotic take up in the food sector. In 2009, German processors installed around 600 systems; over 300 were fitted in Italy, while French companies bought nearly 250. UK firms purchased fewer than 100, about half the number compared to their Spanish counterparts.

The recent economic recession had a devastating effect on the robotics industry – but conversely may have resulted in some longer term benefits for the food and beverage sectors, Mike Wilson, president of the British Automation Robotics Association (BARA) told FoodProductionDaily.com.

The worldwide economic downturn saw robotic shipments slump by around 45 per cent in 2009. Orders from the automotive industry crashed by 52 per cent, while demand from the electronics sector fell by more than a third and sales to the metal and machinery industry tumbled by 64 per cent , said the IFR in its World Robotics 2010 report.

But decline in orders from the food and beverage sector was far less marked with demand for new machinery dropping by just 10 per cent to 3,300 units. This accounted for five per cent of total supply.

Wilson believed the jump in the food sector’s market share of robotics, even over a relatively brief period of time, could have longer term benefits for the industry.

“The 2009 recession saw the food sector increase its overall market share in the robotics industry and therefore become more important to suppliers,” he said. “Robotics suppliers began looking to the food sector because the usual customers were not buying products, and therefore gained a greater understanding of the food industry and its need. This should help them design systems tailored to the sector’s requirement, which should result in greater take up from food and drinks processors.”

Barriers

Wilson said there are specific and historical reasons why robotic technology has been slow to gain significant penetration in the food industry.

Robotic and automation systems were not initially developed with food production in mind. Equipment did not routinely include features that are essential in food processing plants – such as washdown capability and clean design to eliminate dirt traps, he added.

The nature of the systems is that they work best where there is uniformity of size and shape in the products. Food does not generally have this characteristic which means that more expensive vision and handling need to be included – which has cost implications.

“In food this issue has been more of a challenge and this difficulty makes the machines more expensive,” he added. “It is no coincidence that palletizing of finished packaged is where take up of robotics has been greatest in the food sector. But the robotics sector is now adapting to the general needs of the food and beverage industries and is developing high speed picking and packing systems for processing lines.”

Future trends

There is universal agreement in the robotics sector that the food and drinks industry is a fertile growth market for their products. The BARA chief believes the potential is so great that take up from food processors may approach that of the automotive sector with a decade.

“Change is coming as the technology becomes cheaper,” he said. “The food sector has the biggest potential for growth and within ten years it could be reaching levels approaching those of the automotive industry.”

He said the constant pressure on food manufacturers to reduce costs will also spur growth.

“The cost of labour is always increasing where as the cost of technology is going down,” he commented. “The increasing importance of food safety is another important issue. If you can get people off the food processing line and reduce human contact with the product, you immediately cut the risk of contamination. Robotic systems offer this opportunity.”

But while he believed the change would be evolutionary rather revolutionary, the improved efficiencies for those that invested in the technology would spur ever-greater take up as companies fought to remain competitive.

“Companies that do invest in robotics and do it well are those that will be able to compete in the long term. And if you want to be able to compete in the long term then you have to progress – particularly if your competitors are doing it,” he said.