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What's Cooking with Food Robotics?

POSTED 04/05/2010  | By: Bennett Brumson, Contributing Editor

Robotics have an increasingly important role in maintaining a food supply that is safe, efficient and cost-effective. To gauge the robotics industry’s importance of the food sector, the Robotic Industries Association (RIA, Ann Arbor, Michigan) sent out a survey to member companies in early 2010. To address this significant growth area, RIA has a major emphasis on the food industry in 2010, specifically making food processing applications a priority focus. The survey serves as a base point for the focus and some of the findings are presented later within this article.

RIA’s 2010 food industry emphasis includes a special Robots in Food Industry resource section on Robotics Online. The section is dedicated to food-related content from members, including case studies, videos, products, feature articles, tech papers and more.

Also highlighting the food focus is a free Food Robotics Webinar, sponsored by RIA in conjunction with National Robotics Week, to be conducted April 15. Another complimentary webinar, Robotics: An introduction for poultry, pork, red meat & dairy processors, is sponsored by the National Provisioner in association with RIA (April 21).

Food Apps
Palletizing, packaging and packing make up the bulk of applications robotics undertake in the food sector. “Palletizing has penetrated across all segments of the food industry, including meat, fish and poultry,” declares Rush LaSelle, Director, Global Sales and Marketing with Adept Technology Inc. (Pleasanton, California). “Palletizing robots are at the end of the food production process, where they have made a significant impact.”

Primary packaging involves placing food items directly into its initial wrapper or package. Secondary packaging is putting those wrapped foods into a box or bag prior to palletizing. Robotics are moving upstream in the food business to primary and secondary packaging. “Robots do a significant amount of packaging in the food industry. For many years, robots have been packaging food and putting that packaged food into cartons,” posits, Peter Cavallo, Robot Sales Manager at DENSO Robotics (Long Beach, California).

James Cooper, Vice President of Sales, KUKA Robotics Corp. (Clinton Township, Michigan) adds that robots continue to work their way upstream in food production. “I see a tremendous opportunity for robotics on the process side of the food industry. While the food industry has been slow to adopt robotics for upstream processing, that area is growing.” Cooper anticipates the most growth in food robotics over the next five years will be in primary and secondary packaging applications.

Primary packaging requires a higher level of cleanliness because of the robot’s proximity to the product. The design of the robot reflects the need for sanitary operation. “Food-grade grease is a basic requirement for most customers, says Tom Sipple, Handling Technology Leader at Motoman Inc. of West Carrollton, Ohio. “Also, the robotics industry is offering IP67 rated wash down robots, which is the minimum that is acceptable to most meat and poultry companies.”

Vision-enabled robot packing food, courtesy, FANUC Robotics America Inc.Why Use Robots?
With the economy still struggling with recession and joblessness, why should the food industry consider investing in robotics?

“The food industry is a difficult setting for someone to work in due to health, safety and ergonomic issues. The food industry is a tremendous opportunity for robotics,” proclaims Richard Motley, Account Manager for Distribution Network at FANUC Robotics America Inc. (Rochester Hills, Michigan). Because of the unavailability of labor to work in food production plants, the need for robotics in the food industry will grow significantly. “I see the same drivers of safety, material savings, higher productivity and yields in the food industry now as in the early days of robotic welding and painting applications.”

Similarly, “The food industry is very labor-intensive and the work is difficult with very high turnover,” says Ted Wodoslawsky, Vice President of Marketing, the Robotics Division of ABB Inc. (Auburn Hills, Michigan). “Food production cannot be outsourced to another country so is a good market for robotics.”

Likewise, LaSelle adds, “Reports continue to show that keeping mundane tasks fully staffed remains a widespread issue in the food processing industry leading to high turnover rates. Given the cost to secure and train new employees, the savings robotics offers go beyond hourly wages.” Finding and retaining labor is difficult for food manufacturers, even in uncertain economic conditions.

Moving 120-inch log, courtesy West Liberty Foods L.L.C.West Liberty Foods L.L.C. (West Liberty, Iowa) uses robotics in their Tremonton, Utah plant. “We use robots to move 120-inch slicing logs to cook racks. Robotics fabricating longer logs has reduced our cost to produce them as well as enhancing food safety,” says Gerald Lessard, Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at West Liberty. “We could not have gone from 72-inch logs to 120-inch logs without robotics.” Lessard explained that 120-inch slicing logs are ground meat that is put into a casing, somewhat like a 100-pound sausage.

“Robotics were a simpler solution to move our logs rather than using dedicated automation and provides increased consistency, productivity, and safety. Longer logs require less handling and we are cognizant of safety issues, especially when it comes to repetitive motion injuries.” Lessard contends workplace injuries are reduced using robots, and their hygienic design gives West Liberty Foods the ability to sanitize equipment with a high degree of confidence.

KUKA Robotics has their machines used for processing pork. Cooper says, “Our robots are used in pork processing, replacing other types of automation or operators from these tasks. Robots not only increase efficiency and quality but they make cleaner cuts which improves yields by not cutting into the meat as much and removing more of the fat.”

The Survey Said...
RIA’s survey asked member companies to describe the current state of robotic use in North America. “Robot manufactures see food processing as a growth market and are developing products that can withstand the cleaning requirements,” says John Burg, President of Ellison Technologies Automation (Council Bluffs, Iowa). Burg also says gripper design needs development to become more cost-effective and operate in a food production environment.

Similarly, “A range of applications after wrapping and prior to cartoning merit robotics and present our industry with new opportunities,” says Adil Shafi, President of ADVENOVATION Inc., Houghton, Michigan. “I see food bags bin picking to be very promising.” Food products have shape and positional variation, often without good features to work with.

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Keith Rosnell, Chief Executive Officer of Remtec Corp. (Cincinnati, Ohio) claims, “The meat and poultry processing markets remain immature from a robotics standpoint. The food industry has been slow to adopt robots for applications other than end-of-line, so upstream processes remain an area of opportunity.” Rosnell went on to say, “Robotics have been strongly adopted in the beverage market. In addition to end-of-line applications, case-packing and carton magazine loading applications have seen implementation of robotics.”

Clean Machines
To comply with government regulations, robot makers and integrators need to design and deploy robots that can prevent build-up of bacteria and be easily sanitized. Constructing the robot from stainless steel or putting a protective suit over the robot are among strategies to meet FDA regulations.

“To maintain cleanliness standards, several robot manufacturers use stainless steel so the robot can be washed down with hot water,” related ABB’s Ted Wodoslawsky. “Europeans cover their robots, similar to Handling the whole hog, courtesy SCHUNK, Inc.automotive painting work cells. When a robot is covered, end-users no longer have to worry about oils and grease being food grade.”

Wodoslawsky professes that robot design is vital for a successful food application. “We redesigned our robot so that a single piece of metal forms the top and everything is rounded so water flows off while preventing areas where contaminates can collect. The part count went down on the robot’s arm because we wanted to prevent the possibility of pieces falling into someone’s food.” Wodoslawsky stressed that robot parts never made it into a consumer's food but the robot was redesigned to preclude that. ABB changed the paint to ensure it can withstand sustained intense water pressure. “That is the way people behave in the actual world when washing down a robot,” argues Wodoslawsky.

To help meet sanitary standards, Stäubli Corporation, Robotics Division (Duncan, South Carolina) offers a series of food robots. “The external structure of the robot must be easy to clean and able to survive the cleaning requirements of the food industry,” asserts Sylvie Algarra, Worldwide Food Activity Specialist at Stäubli. “These specialized robots are highly resistant to these harsh chemicals and ideally suited for the food production environment. Tooling is also of primary concern as it’s in direct contact with food.”

“Each country has different requirements for tooling around food, observes Product Manager Jesse Hayes of SCHUNK Inc. (Morrisville, North Carolina). “International food companies need to fully understand the FDA, Stainless steel food-grade robot, courtesy Stäubli Corporation, Robotics DivisionUnited States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and foreign requirements, as well as understand the materials that can be used, special contours and finish that go into tooling.” Hayes notes that the materials going into end-of -arm-tooling in food applications consists of more stainless steel and plastics, all of which pose unique challenges when fabricating them.

Unlike automotive parts, food items vary in size and shape from one to the next. Having a gripper that can handle them poses a challenge. Hayes cites fish patties as an example of grippers handling a delicate food with varying size and shape. “Vacuum grippers cannot be used to pick up fish patties because the breading will clog vacuum lines. An adjustable gripper for different shapes is used to reach underneath to remove the patties from a conveyor.”

In most robotic applications, care must be taken to protect the robot from its working environment. Heat, dust, and lubricants all need to be managed to prevent harm to the robot and peripheral equipment in the work cell. “For years, robot manufacturers have been good at protecting the robot from severe environments,” points out Motley. “In food applications, integrators need to protect the product and the environment from the robot.”

Good Eatin’
The outlook for robotics in the food industry is bright. “Work in food plants is dull, dirty, dangerous, the kind of thing robots are designed to do,” says Wodoslawsky. “I see more adoption and pushing of robotic technology in food plants, especially on the messier side of food production.

Food Robotics - Free Webinar 
Free Food Robotics Webinars & Resources: 

Industry and regulatory issues are examined where robotics are used or can be used in food applications. Robotic Industries Association members and a guest from the USDA comprise a panel that will look at guidelines for sanitary design and implementation of robotics in various phases of food processing. From raw material handling to the end of the line and even into the delivery truck – robots with a proven track record for safety and reliability are ready to help. more...

Robotics: An introduction for poultry, pork, red meat & dairy processors

Industrial robot and vision technology has emerged as a viable production tool for processors to reduce costs, improve worker safety, and increase yield. This seminar provides an introduction to industrial robotics via a variety of case studies highlighting successful installations, system features and benefits, and key concepts and insights for processors considering the use of robotics in their operations. More...

Food Robotics Resources:
For additional resources, including case studies, videos, products, feature articles, tech papers and more, click: Robots in Food Industry.