by Laura Studwell, Food, Beverage, and Packaging Industry, Marketing Manager and Dan Dibbern, Robotics Product Manager, Omron
The growing sophistication of robots has sparked debates among experts over what the food industry will look like in the next decade. The pace of robotic encroachment is a new development in this industry—and we’re just beginning to gain insight into how effectively robotics solve pain points at each stage of production—from processing to palletizing.
A decade ago, 9 out of 10 robots manufactured were used in the automotive industry. While the automotive industry continues to be the largest consumer of industrial robots, we are seeing substantial growth in other industries. The proliferation of robotics has diluted the automotive industry’s share to 50%, with 46% being used in other industrial environments and 4% operating in the food industry. IFR is predicting this number to grow by another 4% by 2016.
The food industry is the most immune to economic uncertainty, as food will always be required. Many robot manufacturers are targeting food manufacturers because of their need for automation—to handle labor intensive and repetitive tasks, increase throughput, regulate line changeovers and accommodate shorter production runs.
Flexibility to stay efficient
What’s driving the market? When consumers demand variety, machine builders gravitate toward smart modularization, or designing different parts of a machine for flexibility, creating easier changeover and shorter production runs.
Machine builders see value in centralized control architecture, meaning the controls would be housed within part of the system. The central controller would handle several disciplines of automation, such as I/O, motion and safety. As the system expands to include robots, for example, there would be no additional controller required.
Each time a module is added within the system, such as a robotic cell, the central controller sees it and all of its components as extra network nodes, maintaining real-time and deterministic coordination across all technologies contained within the node. This automates changeover, verifies the presence or absence of modules, such as servo motors, vision systems and safety components, and adjusts all coordination automatically.
Centralized control architecture brings the system with all of its modules under one software for configuration, programming and commissioning logic, motion, vision, safety and robotics. For revision handling, this is a key concept because the entire system, not only the individual module, is saved in one project with roll-back/roll-forward capabilities throughout the development cycle. To accommodate variations in packaging, a new revision can be configured within the same project, where it will be backed-up with other revisions.
Personalization through e-commerce
Classic examples of differentiation through personalization are popping up on the Internet at a fast pace. One e-commerce site has dominated this concept by allowing visitors to input their preferences and receive a personalized box customized with samples that meet their unique desires. Samples in one box will differ from those in another box. So how does this rapidly growing company accommodate on-demand changes? They break the mold and make customization through personalization a mass trend in manufacturing.
Mass customization requires understanding the trade-off between process complexity versus process variability. This goes into the fundamentals on how a manufacturing line is set up and how the process flow is oriented. There is no more local view—it now becomes a system’s view controlled by automation and communications throughout the line and from the plant floor to the store door (or in this case, the consumer’s door).
Mass personalization that necessitates on-demand changes all comes together through communications and automation, and in this case, with the use of robotics and vision systems. This company doesn’t go out and buy another machine specifically to assemble each differentiated box; they accommodate small production runs that are made-to-order and customized through highly flexible machinery.
The robotic movement
Technology is already available to meet the challenges companies face on a daily basis, from flexibility to customization. But what does this mean for the workforce? Rising efficiency in robots is shaping how developing economies can compete with emerging economies. Developing countries need to do more with fewer people as viable populations rise in emerging nations.
Today, production lines are designed to be an effective collaboration between man and machine. But will robots eventually cause redundant positions, eliminating part of the workforce? Economists widely believe businesses will evolve to stay ahead of technological advances and automation will create demand for more skilled workers. Blue-collar workers can be re-deployed to other areas of the business to keep up with the automated throughput generated by robots.
Industry experts will argue that even though some blue-collar jobs may be re-deployed, more efficient manufacturing will create skilled jobs, from servicing to designing. Many companies are dedicated to training for skilled positions and will create opportunities in other areas to accommodate the shift to a more skilled labor force. A 2014 study by CareerBuilder notes that 68% of companies created new jobs after automating others.
Many people—from factory workers to governing bodies and economists—are wondering if robots are on the cusp of completely changing the face of the food processing and packaging supply chain. While most agree that it will not be immediate, the integration of robots will ultimately have a big impact on the food industry.