Alan Spreckley, channel partner manager for ABB’s UK robotics business, explains how robot-based automation is now more capable than ever of helping achieve a truly hygienic production process, untouched by human hands
Consumer demands for quality and safety, coupled with the impact of increased regulation, continue to challenge food producers already fighting to compete in a very demanding and fast moving production environment.
As a fast, flexible and proven means of producing vast quantities of products, the latest generation of robots can help to overcome many of these challenges. In the last three years, demand for industrial robots in the UK food and beverage sector has grown by 300%, with units handling a wide range of both production and handling tasks. This figure is even more impressive given the lingering reluctance across UK industry as a whole to adopt robotic technology. Compared to Germany and Sweden, which boast take-up rates of around 240 robots and 115 robots per 10,000 workers respectively, the UK’s own take-up rate is just 52 robots per 10,000 workers.
However, in the food industry, it is still the case that the majority of robots tend to be engaged in picking, packing and palletising operations. The challenge now is to convince food producers that the same benefits they enjoy in end of line processes are also possible in other areas of production, including hygienic handling.
The potential contamination of a food product is a nightmare scenario that must be avoided. The costs associated with wastage, product recalls and loss of consumer confidence can be crippling, not to mention the consequences of any legal action that might arise as a result of death or injury caused by any contamination.
For this reason, companies make every effort to ensure the hygiene of their production areas. Even so, even in the most stringent production environments, there will always be a risk of contamination from human sources. This fact alone presents a strong case for the use of automation equipment in hygienic processes.
The European Hygienic Engineering & Design Group (EHEDG) has published many best practice guidelines and recommendations relating to the hygienic design of machinery. One regulation is the EU Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC. It calls on machinery suppliers to meet essential hygienic requirements for the handling of food stuffs, along with requirements to minimise the risks to hygiene arising from the use of machinery. For example, machines should be easy to clean before use, and easily dismantled for cleaning where necessary.
Robots designed for food and beverage applications offer a hygienic, sanitary solution for food processing and primary packaging. They do not catch illnesses or have foreign bodies, such as hair or nails, which could fall into and contaminate food products. Also, today’s robots are designed for hygienic wash-down procedures.
As the demand for robots in food and beverage processes has grown, robot manufacturers have begun to developed specific robot solutions aimed at particular processes, rather than just adapting models originally designed for use in other industries. Food-grade robots are inherently clean and undergo stringent testing to adhere to hygienic production regulations. For example, ABB’s robotic technology is certified by The Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA in Stuttgart, where all robotic technology is tested to evaluate suitability and surface cleanliness attributes.
When it comes to hygienic design, ABB’s FlexPicker incorporates a number of features to make it suitable for use in food applications, including corrosion-resistant materials, a special paint finish and the inclusion of slide bearings on its fourth axis for easy cleaning with detergents. These models are also equipped with food grade lubricants, seals and epoxy paints required to meet the demands of high-pressure wash-down applications. In the area of ingress protection, in addition to its IP67 approved robots, ABB also offers versions with an IP69k wash-down rating, for use in high-pressure, high-temperature wash-down applications. This has opened up opportunities for the use of robots in the raw meat processing industries.
Developments in robotics have not only made them easier to use, they are also less costly too. Consider, for example, that whilst hourly wages have risen by 105% over the past 20 years, the costs of robots has reduced by 48%. This is particularly important as 99% of manufacturing companies are SMEs. Therefore, it is almost certain that the rate of adoption of robot automation will continue to grow dramatically over the coming years.
In an application designed for The Charkman Group, a Swedish manufacturer of cooked meat products, the introduction of ABB’s FlexPicker robot has improved production and guaranteed hygienic conditions. The plant has introduced a fully automated slicing line that slices and packs high volumes of salami, ham, turkey, rolled pork and other cooked meats, and uses a wash-down stainless steel version of the FlexPicker. The system is used to slice a variety of products and can be programmed to handle some 26 pack variations and sizes. In addition to the labour-saving, hygienic and safety benefits of the new system, it also ensures products can be handled with precision and consistency.
The challenge for manufacturers now is to reassess their strategy in order to identify opportunities to exploit the hygienic advantages of integrating robotics into food and beverage and pharmaceutical operations.