There is a "perfect storm" building and it is about to sweep the food processing and packaging industry. But the ways in which the industry is rising to the challenge will actually bring greater efficiency, better products and workforce safety, and lower processing and packaging costs. The main elements of the “storm” are increasing labor costs, workforce acquisition issues, new industry standards and new government regulations.
Then there are the demands of consumers – more choices, more convenience, food that is fresh, readily available on a regular basis, and affordable. For processors, demand for product customization and the resulting variability in process steps and parameters are at an all-time high. Food processors must make efforts to keep up with these trends while also trying to anticipate the future and stay profitable. In combination, these elements are causing food processors and packagers to seek “shelter from the storm” by finding robotics and other automation elements as increasingly attractive. Benda Manufacturing Inc. (BMI), with our extensive robotics experience and food industry domain expertise, stands ready to help the industry meet current and future challenges with the latest in robotics, automation, control, and conveyor technology.
When food processors and packagers consider automating various steps in their processes, the questions can be summed up in a paraphrase of the title of Isaac Asimov’s landmark 1950 science fiction novel, “I, Robot”: “Why Robot?”
Some answers are easy to identify: 24/7 operation, higher productivity, and reduced labor costs. But as has been demonstrated repeatedly in BMI’s broad base of food industry robotics installations, other benefits accrue: the ability to accommodate newer lightweight and sustainable packages; boosting OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness); reducing operating costs, and improving worker safety through reducing time lost to accidents and repetitive task injuries.
Robotics can be especially advantageous to enterprises that need to switch among different products frequently or adapt to processing and packaging new products quickly in order to stay competitive. Robots’ end-of-arm tooling (EOAT) or even an entire system can be changed and reprogrammed quickly to meet the time demands of introducing new products to market. The flexibility of a robot that can be reconfigured quickly carries enormous advantages over dedicated systems.
At what points in food processing and packaging operational flows can robotics provide these and other benefits? BMI believes the answer will eventually be “practically everywhere,” and is fully prepared to support the industry’s moves in that direction. For now, robotics has already made significant inroads at the end of the line, in palletizing and secondary packaging operations (case packing, carton loading). Among BMI’s installed base of robotic systems is a palletizing system in which a robot stacks 40-pound boxes filled with meat products, reaching 6 feet high. One robot loads three different SKUs on three pallets, simultaneously.
But the rate of robotics adoption towards the front end of the process is accelerating. One example is BMI’s design and implementation of a robotic muffin de-panner that allowed productivity at a commercial bakery to skyrocket to 1.3 million muffins per day. The installation includes a robot arm fitted with an end-of-arm tool (EOAT) that removes muffins from two 72-cavity pans per minute and places the muffins in four 18-cavity plastic trays that have a different center-to-center dimension from the pans. BMI also integrated a tray de-nester that places eight of the plastic trays at a time. The system accommodates a variety of muffin varieties and toppings without damaging the products.
Will robotics be “pushed” even further towards the “front end” of food processing? That’s a difficult prediction to make with any degree of certainty, but the possibilities are almost endless. As of 2015, according to the International Federation of Robotics, the food industry ranked fifth among five identified industry sectors in robotics adoption, so there is plenty of “runway” remaining. It is quite possible that robots will be more widely deployed than they are now in applications such as grading of fruits and vegetables, processing meat products, and even decorating cakes.
Regardless of how the expansion of robotics in the food industry progresses, mounting an effort at reaping the benefits of the technology, at whatever stage or stages of the process, is a “no-brainer.” That said, it is critical for any food industry enterprise, large, small, or in-between, to partner with a robotics system provider that has the experience and qualifications to ensure trouble-free installation, automatic fault recovery, provide excellent post-installation support, and to train customer staff in system operation, maintenance and programming. The provider should have experience in the food industry that is both broad and deep, so that there is a very short or negligible learning curve in understanding a customer’s business and technical requirements. Equally important is that the provider be certified by several industry-leading robotics OEMs so that it has the ability to choose among an array of equipment options to match a customer’s requirements exactly.
Equipment choices include not only robots, but end-of-arm tooling, conveyor systems, sensors and encoders, motor drives, system controllers, and other items. It is therefore critical that the provider have the expertise to work with the customer’s process team to guide the customer to an optimal solution without bias towards or against any OEM’s products, with equipment choices based solely on performance, quality, reliability, and suitability for the customer’s application.
Benda Manufacturing, Incorporated (BMI), with thousands of installations worldwide, has been an innovator in product handling systems since 1986. Our deep and broad expertise in both robotic technology and conveyor systems provides manufacturers complete solutions. BMI’s Robotic Solutions Group is made up of experts trained in 3D modeling; electrical, mechanical, and robotic engineering; factory automation; and lean manufacturing. We understand what needs to happen on the manufacturing floor in niche markets such as baking, meat/poultry, dairy, prepared foods, pharmaceutical, contract packaging, material handling, palletizing and high-speed packaging. An early advocate of industrial robots, BMI is an authorized integrator of major robotics OEMs.
BMI’s systems and testing results are designed to meet industry standards, including USDA, FDA, 3A Dairy, BISSC and UL. As a one-stop source for all things robotic, BMI works with thecustomer’s process team to identify the right product infeed, component infeed, end-of-arm tool (EOAT), and outfeed solution to meet production needs.