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Busting the myths around robotics

Busting the myths around robotics

Fact or fabrication? Paul Wilkinson of Pacepacker Services addresses the most common preconceptions about the use of robot systems in the food and drink industry and tackles some of the most persistent myths.

Robotic systems are more sophisticated and varied than ever. In many industrial operations, they have long been integrated into wider automation and production processes and are accepted as making a key contribution to overall plant efficiency. So why are so many SME's, particularly within the food and drink industry, still deterred by the technology and cautious about applying it to their processing and packaging operations? Let's explode some of the myths surrounding robotics.

Myth 1: Robots are too expensive.

As with any capital equipment, you need to look at the total cost of ownership. A robot is typically a 'fit and forget' device requiring much less maintenance than the mechanical equivalent. For example, when end-users have the choice between installing a traditional layer palletiser versus a robot, the vast majority, in our experience, will choose the robot. The robotic capital cost itself may end up being less, but in any case, the robot will nearly always outperform the palletiser.

For those with seasonal variations in business, or SMEs taking their first steps into automation, a new robotic installation isn't the only option. Pacepacker regularly supplies Blu-Robots, pre-owned robot arms. While Blu-Robots often have two-thirds of their operating life still ahead of them, they are typically half the cost of a new system.

Myth 2: We don't have the in-house expertise for robots.

The British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) recently said it believed the 'fear factor' was more of a deterrent than capital cost when it came to investment. Certainly, engineering departments may be wary of technologies they are not familiar with. As with any technology, businesses can determine how far they want to develop in-house expertise and balance that against out-of-house support. Training can be tailored to individual needs. Nine times out of ten, our telephone support team can talk customers through any issues and how to put them right. Likewise, remote diagnostics is on the rise and means that problems can be tackled even more swiftly and directly.

Further, because today's palletising robots incorporate 20% fewer parts than the preceding generation, there is less that can go wrong. The reliability factor with robot systems exceeds 99.9%.

Myth 3: Once installed, a robot is a one trick pony.

To suggest that a single robotic system has unlimited flexibility would be untrue. Any new retasking must take into account the payload, reach and speed capacity of your operation. That said, once you have taken these three requirements into account, it is relatively straightforward to reprogram a robot to perform another task, using different end effectors where necessary. When you compare the flexibility of robots to mechanical alternatives, the lifespan longevity of a robot is far greater and therefore offers a much better TCO.

Myth 4: Robots are dangerous.

There are potential dangers to many devices and vehicles, and the same is true of robots. The secret is to recognise, manage and mitigate any risks, ensuring operatives are trained and that safeguards are introduced.

Robotic safety measures start with ensuring that the mechanical barriers - including perimeter guarding, panelling or mesh - are fit for purpose. Of course, access has to be possible, whether for changing pallets or cleaning, but any point of entry must have the requisite interlock safety switch, safety curtain or light guard.

Previously, it may have been feasible to reprogram a robot or manually manipulate it to breach the perimeter guarding. However, the latest generation of robots often have software like Fanuc's Dual Check Safety, and this enables us as integrators to pre-program a permissible area of movement beyond which it cannot reach.

Myth 5: A bespoke robot takes longer than other types of automation to install.

This is a common misconception, rooted in the idea that robots are more complex and higher-value than other pieces of equipment, and therefore must take longer to install. In fact, the reverse is often true, largely because programming can be carried out before a robot leaves the factory. The same is true of pre-testing, even where a larger system is delivered in sections prior to installation. For customers, this minimises any production disruption on the line.  

Myth 6: A robot is more difficult to integrate into a line sourced from different manufacturers than other types of equipment.

Another falsehood - the physical versatility of a robot arm is likely to offer a greater number of options in terms of line layout than other pieces of equipment. The infeed and outfeed from a robot can be at any angle and at any height required. So in fact, far from limiting flexibility in a line layout, it can compensate for the lack of flexibility in other sections of the line.
Of course, control systems can differ; but even where different architecture is used, and one control system cannot 'talk' directly to another, a simpler - rather than more complex - interface can always be established.

Myth 7: The payback time for a robot is too long.

It is understandable why smaller businesses may be wary of investment in an environment where costs are continuously under pressure and competition for shelf space is more intense than ever. On the flipside, these reasons are why companies opt to automate, as it enhances product quality and operational efficiency and reduces waste. The benefits are not just realised by the manufacturer, but also retail consumers. That can help to reinforce existing supply contracts and win new ones.

We know the realities of getting product out of the door, on time and to the required quality, to meet current contracts. Some of the most thriving food businesses are successful because they look beyond these challenges and size up their future options as well their present commitments. When it comes to those all-important costs, remember that system specifications can be tailored to keep prices as low as possible. This in turn means that real payback times will often be much shorter than customers regularly anticipate.

Myth 8: Robots replace people and, given today's flexible workforce, there is little incentive to do that.

It is easy to assume that robots perform the same operations as humans while adding little value, being costlier and less easy to manage. However there often remain very sound reasons for automating manual or semi-automated operations. And automation does not necessarily herald major job cuts. Quite apart from anything else, a robotic installation is likely to increase productivity, creating opportunities for the existing operators to be transferred to another portion of the line.

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