Collaborative robots in the food industry
26 Oct, 2020

Collaborative robots in the food industry

In a dominated by the seasonal demands industry, the changing consumer tastes and the environmental protection challenges, collaborative robotics solutions are excellent for production quality improvement, with improving precision as the production volume increased.

The food industry provides an extremely wide range of automation opportunities for the collaborative robots or cobots regarding industry typical processes, such as dosing, moving – picking and placing, stirring, sorting, arranging and palletizing. For that purpose Universal Robots (UR), the Danish manufacturer of collaborative robots, equipped them with a variety of terminal gripping devices – having 2-axis and 3-axis, as well as with vacuum grippers, and also with fully compatible equipment, certified to operate with the UR+ platform cobots. Such an example is the tool and equipment Canadian manufacturer ROBOTIQ. When installing the specific sensor and camera technology, the robots from UR become a hardworking assistant in the quality control.

It’s remarkable how cobots from Universal Robots are head and shoulders above the others in simple, intuitive operations. The adjustment of robotic arms is easy and quick, on the spot, and complying with new requirements. The average time necessary to install and configure a robotic hand to carry out a new task, is half a day. Interesting is the fact that collaborative robots reduce production costs and increase productivity ensuring manufacturing process continuity. Cobots are easy to reprogram and redirect for different tasks without changing the planning in production lines. This flexibility helps the rapid reimbursement, as cobots pay off for about a year.

Cobots offer a high level of repepetitiveness while keeping an accuracy of ±0.03 mm, even operating 24/7. This guarantees shorter cycles and reduced damage costs or effects on good commercial appearance of food products. Besides manufacturing tasks, robotic arms, equipped with a camera system, can perform quality control tasks, such as 3D measurement and testing. Being able to identify faulty or low quality products, or defective commercial appearance prior to further processing can also reduce waste.

The Universal Robots+ (UR+) ecosystem would guarantee a flawless integration of innovative peripheral products by third-party manufacturers, in response to the increased demands on specialized robotic implementation.

Other aspect of implementing collaborative robots in the food industry is improving the efficiency and optimization of manpower. Cobots free human workers from monotonous and time-consuming tasks, giving them more time to focus on activities with higher added value. People carry out tasks, relevant to their skills, while cobots can perform physically demanding and dangerous activities, keeping employees protected from health risks due to poor ergonomics, stress due to monotony or uncomfortable working conditions. For instance, temperatures in the food industry are often extreme – very high or very low. This conditions can quickly lead to negative impacts on human health, but they would have no effect on cobots. Collaborative robots, certified for working in clean premises, meet the stringent hygienic requirements in food manufacturing, which makes them an attractive opportunity for process automation such as:

  • Pick and place: Collaborative robots increase the precision of processes and reduce the losses of raw materials on automated pick-and-place processes, performed even in the absence of humans. The simple design and small assembly area suggest that robotic arms are appropriate for work and equipment change in accordance with various processes and confined areas.
  • Packaging and palletizing: Small batch production with short delivery cycles remains a challenge for each packaging line. Cobots increase flexibility and productivity. There are a number of examples in the food industry of implementing collaborative robots at the different levels of packaging:
    • Primary packaging — Individual product packaging. For example, a robot gripper is filling boxes of candy.
    • Secondary packaging — Single boxes are joined together. For instance, a robot gripper is arranging the full boxes in a cardboard box.
    • Tertiary packaging — The boxes of secondary packaging are arranged for a dispatch. For instance, a cobot is stacking multiple cardboard boxes on a pallet.

It should be pointed out that collaborative robots have security system equipment, certified by TUV, for an instant shutdown in response to a collision or blocking. So, when they work side-by-side with employees safety control would not be necessary following the risk assessment.

We are aware of many specific successful projects, where collaborative robots have been implemented not only in various industrial processes in food industry, but they also add value to companies, due to time reduction, process optimization, loss and waste reduction and increasing flexibility of production lines. For example, Atria Scandinavia - a leading manufacturer of semi-finished and gourmet products, delivers to wholesale dealers 24 hours a day. The company packages, labels and palletize olives, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes, garlic and other specialties daily. It has decideed to reduce to a maximum the stays, to be able to guarantee fresh products at competitive prices. So, two UR5 robots and one UR10 robot were implemented, working in collabortion, which are able to prepare on average 228 items per hour for delivery. Besides, the cost of materials in packhouse was optimized with waste reduced by 25%, by virtue of collaborative robots. “Before, it took six hours to convert to a different product. Now it happens in only 20 minutes, as we use the UR robots.” says Johnny Jansson, Technical Manager

Implementation of robots from Universal Robots in Atria. © Universal Robots

Another example is one of the most successful agricultural cooperatives in Spain – Covap. The company manufactures and trades with a variety of dairy and meat products, as well as pet food. Covap has installed an UR10 robot for the placement of plastic trays on the packaging line with a pick-and-place task. The cobot can easily be integrated in the line, speeding up the packaging process, with no effects of negativity on quality or workplace environment. Also, the employees work safely side-by-side with UR10 in a confined space, as virtual safety stops control the robot movement speed. The investment has paid off in 16 months. The company profits by the new flexibility level and the improved working conditions.

Cascina Italia is another example - the company processes millions of eggs per day for a highly-competitive market. It needs additional flexibility to meet market demands. The production process optimization for freeing up internal resources is a constant challenge. Investing in conventional robotic solutions would dry up the financial resources of the company completely, and their installation would be difficult taking into consideration the confined working areas in the company.

The UR5 cobot provides solution, being installed at the end of production lines – there are 24 in total, preparing cardboard boxes for shipping and packaging 144 cartons of 10 eggs, in cardboard boxes, and processing 1.5 million eggs per day.

Implementation of robots from Universal Robots в Cascina Italia. © Universal Robots

“The collaborative robotic solutions are favourable to companies like ours, with confined production areas and investment budget.” Says Ruggero Moretti, Production Manager.

In summary, cobots offer unexpected solutions to companies in the food industry, regardless of their size. The economies and rationalisation of most production processes are beyond doubt, and such a robot, loaded at optimum, will pay off in about a year.

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