How Robots Benefit Food and Beverage Manufacturers

Robot Tech

A delta style robot in a food and beverage manufacturing environment picks up a cookie from a conveyor using a suction gripper

How Robots Benefit Food and Beverage Manufacturers

Mark Fairchild
Freelance Technical Copywriter
,
Fairchild Copywriting

Food and beverage manufacturers are using automation and robotics to cope with labor shortages and keep pace with growth and labor-intensive eCommerce.

The food and beverage industry is constantly on the move. From production to delivery, it's a complex process that needs to be running smoothly to keep up with consumer demand. Coping with the challenges becomes even more critical in times of crisis like we're seeing now with COVID-19. Food and Beverage manufacturers and grocery stores and finding new ways to increase sales both online and offline, even as labor shortages make it more difficult. Automation can help lift some of the burdens from workers' shoulders. Robotics improve efficiency throughout the food and beverage supply chain.

A Surge in Growth of the Food Industry

From 2019 to 2020, the global growth in the food industry was 4.45%. Between 2020 and 2021, growth surged to 7.26% year-on-year. Meanwhile, the number of U.S. households that bought groceries online quadrupled from August 2019 to October 2021. The global online grocery market is forecast to expand at around 28% CAGR between 2020 and 2026.

Labor Shortages

Food and beverage manufacturers face a difficult situation. How to keep things running smoothly? How can you keep up with such rapid growth while labor shortages continue? The rise in eCommerce demands more employees because it is so labor-intensive. Meanwhile, labor market statistics from the USA show the number of job openings for nondurable goods manufacturing was 349,000 in January 2022. That compares with 227,000 in January 2021 - an increase of 53% from the prior year. The German Labor Agency Chairman says they face massive labor shortages. In the U.K., job vacancies are 21.5% above their pre-COVID high.

Automation Solutions

Automation is a critical part of coping with labor shortages. And robots have created new opportunities for automation. We will examine robotics in the food and beverage industry through the following topics.

  • Food and Beverage Manufacturing Processes Ripe for Automation
  • How the Food and Beverage Industry Can Benefit from Automation
  • Challenges in Automating Food and Beverage Manufacturing Processes and How to Overcome Them
A Delta-style robot arm places a cookie or cracker into a plastic tray


Food and Beverage Manufacturing Processes Ripe for Automation

Primary Packaging

Primary food packaging is vital for keeping items fresh. Delta-type robots are often ideal for primary packaging applications. In fact, the Delta-style robot was originally designed to enable a sweets manufacturer to pick up pieces of chocolate and place them into a box. These robots are very fast – much faster than humans – at pick-and-place applications. While Delta-style robots struggle with handling heavy weights, this isn't an issue for the majority of food and beverage primary packaging. Picking up food items from a conveyor belt and placing them into trays is a perfect application for a Delta-type robot.

Sanitation

Because the machine comes into direct contact with the food, sanitation is crucially important. Companies that specialize in food automation are well aware of this issue. Indeed, sanitation is one of the significant advantages of robotics over manual processes. Robots never sneeze! Robots for the food industry are clad with stainless steel. They're made to be smooth and easily cleaned. 

How the Robot Grips the Food Items

The End-of-Arm-Tooling (EoAT) varies greatly because of the enormous variation in food. Many robotic solutions for food primary packaging use suction grippers, though there are certain types of food for which this is not effective. For example, cupcakes or other baked goods with frosting do not work well with suction. For this situation, robots with flexible fingers gently grab items by their edges. Such grippers are readily available. When the application calls for picking up many items at a time, special EoAT can handle it. Picking up a half dozen bottles at a time is no problem for the appropriate EoAT.

Primary Food Packing Operations

Some of the primary packaging operations that robots perform can include:

  • Bag and pouch filling
  • Horizontal-Form-Fill-and-Seal (HFFS)
  • Vertical-Form-Fill-and-Seal (VFFS)
  • Tray and cup sealing systems
  • Thermoform packaging
  • Blister packaging
  • Vacuum skin packaging
  • And many more

Secondary Packaging

 

A robot arm uses a suction gripper to pick up six cans of food at once from a conveyor belt

Secondary packaging machines create store-shelf-ready packages. Often this means combining multiple primary packages into a single unit. Sometimes, the secondary package only protects the food during transportation and storage and is discarded at the store.

Robots Used in Secondary Packaging

Robots are well-suited for these kinds of tasks. If items are not too heavy, the manufacturer can still use Delta robots. Articulated-arm robots might come into play if the cases are heavier.  In situations where it is deemed necessary to have the robot work alongside human operatives, Cobots, or collaborative robots are a great solution. Cobots have sensors and systems that prevent harsh collisions. So, they're safe to work alongside people.

Some of the secondary packaging food operations robotic automation can perform include:

  • Stretch wrapping
  • Erecting boxes
  • Packing boxes
  • Sealing boxes
  • And more

End-of-Line Packaging and Palletizing

An articulated arm palletizing robot places a case onto a pallet

Secondary packages are loaded into cases for shipment and storage. The cases are then stacked onto pallets to prevent damage during transit. The weights are often heavier at this stage, so the articulated-arm type of robot is most often used. Cobots can be helpful in such applications. Yet, cobots are generally slower than other articulated-arm robots. So, keep in mind you might need to trade off speed to get safe collaboration.

Some of the end-of-line packaging operations robots can perform include:

  • Erecting cases
  • Closing and sealing cases
  • Banding and strapping cases
  • Loading cases onto pallets in a way that maximizes the number of units. The robots also use a stacking method that minimizes the risk of crushing the lower cases.
  • Shrink-wrapping pallets or other final preparation of the pallet for shipping

How the Food and Beverage Industry Can Benefit from Automation

A manufacturer must process perishable items quickly to deliver them fresh to the consumer. Robots and robotic automation greatly increase the speed with which operations can be performed.

Labor shortages continue to be widespread. And it's difficult to attract workers to perform repetitive, uninteresting tasks. Many of the operations needed for packaging are of this type. Meanwhile, repetitive tasks are ideal for robots. So, robotic automation is an excellent option to address the shortage of labor.

Consistent quality is another benefit of using robots in food and beverage manufacturing. Robots perform operations quickly, precisely, and repeatably. And this translates to reliable quality.

Robots keep people safer in the manufacturing environment. Humans who perform the same movements repeatedly often suffer from Repetitive Motion Injuries (RMI). Such injuries are costly and painful. It can take six months to recover from an RMI, and the average cost of a workplace repetitive motion injury is $40,000. Lifting heavy weights is another frequent source of personal injury in manufacturing. Robots can lift heavy objects all day and never suffer from it.

Challenges in Automating Food and Beverage Manufacturing Processes and How to Overcome Them

Food and beverage manufacturing presents unique challenges to robotic automation. Food involves a fantastic variation in size, shape, and texture. As a result, only human beings could properly handle food until recently. But advances in A.I., computer vision, and gripper technology have made robotics equal to the task.

From Custom-Built to Standardization

In the early days of automation, solutions tended to be custom-built and one-of-a-kind. As the technology advanced, more and more standardization came in. Now, standardized solutions offer flexibility and agility. Being flexible means handling many kinds of food with a single robot. The EoAT is changed to adapt to the different types of items. Being agile means the needed changes to the equipment can be made quickly and easily.

Standardized solutions have brought down the cost of automation and robotics.

A trend toward Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises (SMEs) in Food Manufacturing

The top 25 U.S. food manufacturers have grown more slowly (1.8%) compared to small companies (11 to 15%) over the last decade. Consumers want fresher, healthier, and more artisan food. And the SMEs are doing a better job targeting these niche premium benefits. However, this also can represent a challenge when it comes to automation. SMEs might think they don't have the resources to invest in expensive automation. They also may be intimidated, thinking they lack the needed technical expertise.

Overcoming the Challenges to Automation

Many issues can stand in the way of adopting robotics in your company. Here are some of the most common that we at HowToRobot have identified. We can help with these challenges.

Sometimes it's a question of not knowing where to start. We offer a step-by-step process to guide you in your automation journey. We suggest you begin by creating an overview of potential automation projects in your business.

One of the HowToRobot customers commented on the guided process: "We used to think that robots and automation solutions were out of the question for a smaller company like us. This program has completely changed our view on automation. When there is a structured approach to follow and advisors to trust, we don't have to be the robot experts. Now we know what we can achieve from automation – and how to get there."

You may feel you lack an overview of robotic solutions available on the market. To help with this, HowToRobot has the world's largest directory of robot suppliers. You can search our directory for your application and get a list of relevant vendors in no time. And you can use HowToRobot to get quotes to compare prices on anything robot-related.

Perhaps you have an application in mind, but you are unsure if the technology is mature and exists to address it. Or, you might be unclear on how to translate your needs into proper requirements for suppliers. HowToRobot offers a unique tool for asking suppliers for solutions. You can also reach out and confer with an unbiased and knowledgeable advisor who can provide assistance.

Food & Beverage
Packing & Palletizing