Robots sinking their teeth into food industry

The UK food industry has finally woken up to the importance of robotics to the sector, says plant automation supplier Fanuc.

Although the region remains way behind the rest of the EU and US markets, the company predicts that sales of robots to the sector will amount to 600 units over the next five years - a 27% increase on the combined figures for the last five years.

"Testament to this, many of our system integrator partners are experiencing a dramatic rise in enquiries for food handling robots," said John Rainer, regional sales manager at Fanuc UK.

"Take Pacepacker Services, for example. Over the last six months they have quoted 150 robot orientated projects - a 35% increase on 2013 figures."

He said this growth is echoed by figures published by the British Automation and Robotics Association (BARA) for robotic sales in 2013, which revealed a 60% increase in food sector adoption compared with 2000.

According to Rainer, food manufacturers face a number of challenges in their production operations which robotics can help to solve.

"In a manual process, they must deal with ergonomic issues, labour availability and the uncertainty of increasing costs associated with legislation."

Food safety is also an overriding concern for a wide range of food categories, and code reading capabilities can play a key role in helping them to meet product traceability requirements, he said.

Rainer said technology improvements including vision and the versatility of the robot hand have also improved, making them easier to integrate into food production.

With the food sector in mind, automation supplier Festo recently unveiled a MultiChoiceGripper concept which is an adaptive, flexible handling system that employs the concept of opposable thumbs to "cope with the complexity of parts to be handled, shape, mass, surface and fragility," said Steve Sands, product manager at Festo.

Depending on requirements, between two and six finger elements can be fitted to the MultiChoiceGripper, which is variable in terms of the direction of grip, allowing the 'fingers' to adapt to a wide variety of shapes.

Its key components are made of food-compliant polyurethane, which means they can be applied within washdown environments in the food industry, said Sands.

"Until now, gripping multiple parts has required either time wasting tool changing, weight increasing multiple heads or even multiple handling arms," he said.


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