Foodie fads spark robot rethink

TV cooking programmes are driving legions of fans back into the kitchen. Seven of the top ten most-seen shows of 2015 were episodes of Bake Off, with demands for specific ingredients and products featured, sparking a sales bonanza after each broadcast. Similarly, a slew of new dinner kits, is inspiring home cooks to prepare more ambitious meals at a fraction of the effort. This trend is compelling retailers to rethink store layouts, how they group products together for consumer convenience and how swiftly they react to the scramble for the latest ‘must have’ ingredient or kitchen gadget.

As a result of these developments, there’s been a surge of interest among food suppliers for robotics, observes Paul Wilkinson, business development manager at automation specialist Pacepacker Services. “Shows like MasterChef, Bake Off and celebrity cookery programmes, combined with a desire to lead healthier lives using fresh ingredients, are influencing people to cook everything from exotic cuisines to local produce from scratch. In an effort to reduce food waste, rather than big weekly shops, almost half the nation is now more inclined to shop for recipe ingredients when they need them. With emerging markets like dinner subscription services really taking hold, food suppliers are exploring pick and place and packing solutions to ensure consumers have access to the freshest, most seasonal produce, and all the ingredients to whip up a menu showstopper.”

Like any trend, however, there remains a concern among manufacturers that today’s advanced system could become tomorrow’s expensive mistake as the food industry continues to evolve. Guiding wary automation first-timers, Pacepacker provides some helpful pointers to help minimise the future risk when adopting automation.

Consumers lead the way

Automation isn’t just about keeping up with the latest fad, but also anticipating what will emerge next. If we’ve learned one thing, it’s that consumer behaviour leads the way. Right now, it seems the population is hungry for help in the kitchen. Thankfully, automation systems today flex to these changing needs and far from being one trick ponies, can easily be reprogrammed to perform a different task.

“Five years ago, who’d have thought that our mega-supermarkets would be stripping back their extensive ranges to create a simpler, easier to navigate shopping experience,” comments Paul. “The grocery sector is having to be even more psychologically innovative, and this includes overhauling the layouts of aisles and grouping products, such as all of the components for stir fries, pasta dishes, or cake making, together. Busy lifestyles means consumers today don’t want to graze around the store as much. If they have a list of recipe ingredients, they want everything to be located logically near to each other, so they can be in and out of the shop quickly. To cater to this trend and help ensure even the smaller stores have what people need, retailers are increasingly asking suppliers to prepare mixed trays and cases.”

Reacting to this evolution, Pacepacker created its award-winning Mixed Tray Loader - the first known invention of its kind to automate product swapping. It enables companies to pack an array of products into a tray or delivery box.  When handling ingredients such as meat, fish and dairy, same day turnaround is vital to maintain freshness.

Companies like ‘HelloFresh’ - which has over 250,000 regular monthly subscribers - are also enjoying considerable success, delivering weekly boxes direct to customers filled with a variety of meat trays and stock pots, fresh fruit and veg and spice sachets, according to the recipes selected by subscribers. “For food producers supplying this booming market, product quality and freshness are the underpinning factors. Even for a small operation, products need to be shipped fast and automation is a key tool for picking, packing and delivering orders within tight timeframes,” says Paul.

Trend today … gone tomorrow

Trends are trends. While some stick, others don’t and then there are some classics that rarely go out of style. According to the Hot Food & Beverage Trends 2016/2017 report*, fat is back, souping is the new juicing and subscription meal and cocktail kits are predicted to grow further in popularity this year.

Given the speed in which tastes and shopping habits change, agnostic equipment buyers need assurance that the automation solution specified can be adapted. “Most robotic systems can store as standard a range of different programs for different applications – 25 to 50 is typical – and these will cater for the foreseeable needs of most users,” highlights Paul.

For seasonal food producers, this is especially reassuring. It means that you can switch between packing punnets of blueberries with cherries or strawberries, depending on what’s being harvested. “Realistically, someone packing soft fruits is unlikely to start packing turkeys or birdseed, yet flexibility is still paramount when selecting a system” notes Paul.

Major reprogramming is possible if additional applications arise beyond the scope of the existing programs. “It’s perfectly feasible for properly trained operatives to carry out reprogramming themselves, although for more complex applications it may be easier to call in the supplier, who deals with robotics programs on a day-to-day basis,” says Paul.  

No end to end-effector innovation

Whether you’ve commissioned a Cartesian system, Delta robot or robotic arm, the handling capability of a robotic system ultimately depends on its tooling, or end effector. Although most food producers have a tendency to handle similar products commissioning the most appropriate gripper for their application, if the business changes, swapping tooling is relatively straightforward.

Multitasking end effectors are also more commonplace today. Last year, Pacepacker developed an innovative shingle tray loader with an end effector that can handle any type of fresh and ambient form, fill and seal packs.

“Like any readily available commodity, a pick and place robot ‘out of the box’ will accomplish very little. It’s the ancillaries, applications knowledge, software and set-up you apply to it that will make all the difference!” claims Paul.

Taking in the bigger picture

Vision systems might seem like an obvious way to go in order to improve adaptability. However, they can be as complex as the robots themselves to set up. “Where possible it is usually preferable to try to orientate and singulate product units through the use of lanes and other handling techniques, rather than relying on cameras,” suggests Paul.

Even so, there are times when vision systems can be extremely helpful. Perhaps it’s very difficult to pre-orientate the product or maybe products are arriving at a pick and place station at very high rates that require multiple robots to cooperate, for example chocolates and bakery items going into trays and selection boxes of cheeses. Similarly, irregular shaped products, such as nuts packed in pillow bags, fresh cheese, avocados or frozen berries, might need the support of vision systems to detect the variations in height to ensure the robot retrieves and handles them gently, reducing the risk of product damage.

Building in wriggle room

Given how fast moving today’s food business is, when choosing a system, a good rule of thumb is to specify a contingency of 10 to 20% in terms of payload or speed. In Pacepacker’s experience, it’s not that uncommon for requirements to change even before the automation project is complete

Any system supplier should factor this in and be able to advise about optimising the balance between building in flexibility for possible future expansion and cost. “We always try to build in something extra in reserve,” adds Paul

Select the silver service menu

Although a takeaway fills an immediate hunger, when investing in automation, it’s reassuring to know you have the a la carte menu for support and to adapt to changing production needs. The provision of spares, training, technical support and preventive maintenance services can all be key factors in determining how successfully an automated system performs in the long run.

“With appropriate servicing and support, an automated packing or pick and place system should run reliably for many years, we have robotic systems installed in 2002/3 that are still in full production 13 years on with no reports of any issues.,” claims Paul.

Whatever food trends are on the scene or about to emerge, the robot revolution looks set to stay. “The food industry is facing a paradigm shift, where product freshness and quality rely on speed to market. Today’s generation of automated pick and pack systems are flexible enough to adapt to changing consumers patterns and preferences, which in the food sector is the mandate for success,” concludes Paul.


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