David Roberge

By: David Roberge on January 10th, 2019

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Warehouse Robotics: Are Robots the Future of Food Applications?

Equipment | The Business of Packaging | Plant Performance | Investment | Warehousing

In the 1960s, when The Jetsons made its cartoon debut, robots were a thing of the future. The idea that automation could permeate so much of our everyday lives seemed far-fetched and out of reach. Today, robotics are an ever-present reality. Advanced technology has given rise to equipment and processes that have transformed nearly every industry, and the food and beverage sector is no exception. Now more than ever, it’s important to understand how warehouse robotics could have a major impact on your own operations, machinery and setup.


A new report published by PMMI Business Intelligence indicates that robots are infiltrating an increasing amount of food manufacturing processes. The market for industrial robots is a rapidly growing one, as new application advancements and opportunities are developed. From production to packaging, the sky’s the limit when it comes to automation for food and beverage companies.


Even if you aren’t looking to replace your equipment right now, it is critical to stay informed on the major changes affecting this industry. There are significant benefits to be gained from leveraging some of the advancements in robotics technology, and it’s in your best interest to explore how these advantages can affect your warehouse functions.

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Safer Working Conditions


Robotics automation has been designed to mimic human movements and eliminate the need to place human workers in dangerous or injury-prone conditions. Ensuring the safety of workers is a major benefit of warehouse robotics in the food and beverage industry.


Current data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that there were 51 work-related fatalities in the food manufacturing industry in 2017, and the rate of injury and illness cases per 100 full-time workers was 4.5%. Given that employers pay almost $1 billion per week for direct workers' compensation costs alone, this rate of workplace injuries and illnesses translates to serious bottom-line damage. From workers' compensation payments, medical costs and legal expenses to accident investigation, absenteeism, training for replacement employees, lost productivity and so much more, reducing worker injury can ultimately save big bucks.


Consider, for example, the advantages of robotics in meat processing, as statistics show that meat packing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the U.S. Robotics have been developed to adapt to the varying nature of animal carcasses with sensors, systematically calculating the dimensions of each carcass before sending it through to the cutting process. This helps the robot to cut meat with precision even at high speed, and eliminates the need for human workers to manage this risky part of the process.


Improved Product Consistency


Robots are inherently less prone to error than humans, which establishes a greater level of consistency in the final product. A single robot can perform the tasks of multiple humans in much less time and with far greater accuracy. From damaged products to wasted materials, mistakes common in production can be thwarted with a strategic introduction of automation.


Whereas the food and beverage industry has traditionally relied on human workers to handle advanced functions like cutting and slicing, robotics are being developed and implemented to streamline the process and produce more consistent output. Fish cutting, for instance, involves detecting and removing defects from the fish as well as cutting fillets to uniform shapes and sizes. Automated technology improves this function for a higher caliber of consistency in the final results.


Faster Operations


Technological advancement in robotics has enabled warehouses to maximize efficiency and get products out the door in a much faster way. Even applications that have been available for some time are continuing to evolve to allow for more complex functions and heightened paces.


This is especially true in the area of picking and placing products like fruit and vegetables, which has historically been challenging to manage via robotics. Improvements in gripper technologies have made it possible to cater to product delicacy using pressure sensors and machine vision solutions. With this advantage, operation speeds can be significantly increased without compromising the quality of the finished product.


Let’s face it, your labor force can only do so much on their own, even at peak efficiency. Depending on your current production, you may be able to produce days worth of additional volume in the time you save with automation. Furthermore, robots are tireless and require minimal maintenance. A robot arm can work at a high speed for 70,000 hours or more before requiring maintenance or experiencing a mechanical failure.


Reduced Risk of Contamination


The CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick from a foodborne illness each year, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die. In the case of food automation, it is important to ensure properly sanitized machinery to avoid product contamination that results in food-borne illness to consumers. This is a major concern for manufacturers, as the cost of contamination encompasses a wide range of factors, including brand damage, lost product, decreased sales, diminished consumer loyalty, compliance penalties and legal fees.


Fortunately, robotics are improving to the point that they can be used to reduce food contamination. Robot casings are becoming smoother, with better ingress ratings and the elimination of loose wires, which allows them to be thoroughly washed down at the end of each cycle.


End-to-End Packaging Automation


Food packaging robots have been incorporated into parts of the food supply chain for some time, but only recently have robotics become advanced enough to automate the entire packaging process from end to end. This means a shift to robotics across every conventional touch point in a facility, from de-palletizing and unpacking to primary, secondary and tertiary packaging.This is particularly evident in quality control. Bottle filling, for example, has historically required human involvement to individually inspect incoming materials before the filling process and then examine the final product afterward. With robotics, however, this function can be automatically managed in-line, with bottles being inspected as they’re being filled.


Greater Capacity for Eco-Friendliness


Technological advancements also offer opportunities to produce more eco-friendly packaging in a less expensive way. Some of the newest equipment in the flexible packaging arena is energy efficient. Plus, evolved technology and automation have enabled companies to both reduce the amount of generated waste and improve the value of flexible packaging in recyclability, compostability and reusability.


Staying on top of these and other industry advancements is important for the future of your warehouse equipment. Many of these advancements in technology and robotics could materialize savings in other parts of the business that easily justify the cost of upgrading. Our packaging experts can help you decide whether updating your packaging machinery will produce a worthwhile return on investment.


Get started by taking our free quiz to better understand where your equipment can be improved, whether you should refurbish or buy new, and what questions you need to ask yourself for future equipment decisions.

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About David Roberge

I am grateful for my 9 years as part of the outstanding Industrial Packaging team. I was able to hang out with some of the most knowledgeable folks in the packaging industry. I feel even luckier that I was able to share that knowledge with you. I love learning, hiking, and growing people and teams both personally and professionally, and helping companies grow better.