Food industry robots

A Case for Smaller Food Processors to Deploy Robotics

The increased use of robotics in almost all industries is transforming factories into efficient and highly refined production centers, both across the nation and around the world. Breakthroughs in technology and robot manufacturing techniques have resulted in a more affordable generation of robotics.  Lower total deployment costs and other factors detailed below are increasing the prevalence of automated, efficient facilities at an ever-increasing rate.   The food manufacturing industry however lags behind in its robot automation prevalence.

The food manufacturing sector is one of the largest and most vibrant of all industries. In the United States it is responsible for about ten percent of all manufacturing shipments.  The diversity of the food industry is wide-ranging with small, medium and large providers located in large metro areas and remote locations.

In the lead-up to the mass adoption of robotics, food manufacturing managers found that the technology had some room for improvement as systems didn’t perform consistently enough, in part due to the inherent nature of the products handled.  Slippery, sticky, fragile and inconsistent size/shape food products resulted in handling issues and process variance that challenged the legacy robotic automation industry.

Small Verses Large Company Robotics Implementation

Food processing companies that fit within the smaller to medium size category constitute approximately 90% of the sector.   Deploying automation in these small to medium sized companies has been difficult.  Many factories have more modest budgets for both the initial investment and ongoing maintenance of these complex systems.  These smaller food processors have avoided or limited robotic technology due to cost of deploying top-tier robotics that can overcome handling issues.

Additionally, remotely located smaller companies find it difficult to obtain affordable maintenance and repair personnel who can respond in a reasonable amount of time. More remote factories are dealing with this additional deployment factor.

One further factor limiting smaller food processors from adopting robotics is that there is a tendency for smaller companies to acquire short-term orders rather than long-term fixed orders that larger food companies routinely handle. Short term orders lend themselves to more reconfigurations of processes. The expense of reprogramming and deployment of regular changing processes using robotics has resulted in a prevalence of a “difficult to justify” mentality for these smaller companies.

The confluence of the above factors have resulted in the continued use of limited automation with a resultant disproportionate larger human labor force for smaller food processors.

For these companies, packaging and palletizing operations at the end-line process has been one area that robotics implementation has shined, but with today’s lower acquisition and implementation cost for high performance robotics, many are considering expansion into their upstream processes.

Food Safety Factors Driving Increased Implementation of Robotics

In order to improve food handling safety and reduce contamination, the FDA implemented the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) in 2011.  New smooth surface robots and improved designs allow modern robots to offer much better sanitary advantages over humans on food processing lines. The use of much tighter seals in modern robotics also provides for the improved locking-out of food contaminants resulting in safer food handling. The FSMA law in addition to the reduced cost of more sophisticated robotics will drive the deployment of these systems into a larger scope of industry in years to come.

Industrial Robots in Food Factories

Injuries and Worker’s Compensation Claims

Recent increases in worker’s compensation claims as a result of repetitive and heavy tasks are on the increase. The food industry in general has one of the highest injury rates in the manufacturing sector. * **   The injuries in the food processing sector tend to be more sever and chronic.  Some of the older, manual process equipment is faulty from repeated overuse, in a poor state of maintenance and at times incorporates defective designs.

Food Cost and Waste Reduction

Everyone is aware of the steady increase in food prices; it’s a significantly large factor of inflation in general. The cost of food is at a historic high for consumers and for factory owners alike.  Waste in food processing must be kept to a minimum.  In order to sustain profit margins and remain competitive, manufacturers are looking for every possibly advantage to minimize waist. Today’s advanced robotics offers unparalleled waste reduction protocols.

Conclusion – Consider all The Factors

Many owners and managers in charge of smaller factories may be hesitant to upgrade their processes to robotics due to some of the legacy issues detailed above.

Improvements in robotics handling and technology reducing the cost to implement are allowing otherwise previously minimally automated smaller food processors to justify the expense of installing robots in their factories.  Health and safety handling standards are additional motivators towards moving into the automation pathway.  A qualified workforce that does not succumb to injuries inherent with repetitive factory tasks and increased assembly line speeds are becoming more difficult to maintain.  Additionally, increased food cost and waste reduction processes robots empower are paramount to the bottom line.

If you are a decision maker of a food processing facility, it may be time to do your homework in order to step into systems that will help your company grow with the times, improve your product’s safety and increase net profits over the long-term.  Overall, it may be the competitive difference as to whether your company survives or thrives in the 21st Century.

* U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Injuries, Illnesses, and Fatalities in Food Manufacturing, 2008 (Jan. 21, 2011), p. 1 California Department of Industrial Relations, Cal/OSHA Consultation Service, Ergonomics in Action (2003), p. 2. ** BLS News – Injuries Food Manufacturing