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Picked to perfection

Picked to perfection

A newly developed food picker cell which performs typical loading and unloading packing scenarios is designed to inspire the food industry to greater adoption of food grade robots.

The UK food industry has developed an increased interest in robots over the last 12 months, with one robot manufacturer reporting that enquiries from food manufacturers looking to automate their food handling and packing operations have increased by some 35%.

"Food manufacturers face a number of challenges in their production operations," comments John Rainer, regional sales manager of Fanuc UK. "In a manual process, they must deal with ergonomic issues, labour availability and the uncertainty of increasing costs associated with legislation. In an automated process, accommodating rapid-fire product and pack changes driven by sustainability initiatives and shelf impact, as well understanding and improving key performance measures such as Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE), are key. And in any process, food safety is an overriding concern on the minds of processors, as the consequences of foodborne illness and/or massive product recalls have affected a wide range of food categories."

Fanuc's latest robots have been designed specifically to work in the harshest of environments, and in addition to being smaller, stronger and faster, they incorporate the latest vision technology to improve the robot's 'sight'. "We've strengthened the business case for robot adoption by providing the necessary functionality that a food producer needs," says Rainer.

The IP67 certified food picker cell (measuring 4m x 2.2m in area and 2.35m tall) is designed to orientate and pack a wide variety of unpackaged and packaged foods, including confectionery, baked, snack and dairy items. At one end it incorporates a ceiling mounted four axis M3iA/6s delta style loading robot, capable of 120 picks per minute. This robot has a 6kg payload and a work envelope of 0.5m deep by 1.350m diameter. The delta style system orientates products taken from a conveyor and places them into a plastic blister tray ready for secondary packing. With its white epoxy finish and food grade grease, the arm can withstand tough cleaning regimes which use acid and alkaline products.

At the other end of the cell, an M430iA/2P articulated arm robot demonstrates a typical unloading scenario removing products from the trays back onto the conveyor. Mountable in a variety of positions including floor, wall or invert, the six axis M430 maximises flexibility for tight workspaces and can also complete 120 cycles per minute - matching the delta.

Although the cost of a robot has reduced (for example the cost of Fanuc's latest palletiser is 7% lower compared to its predecessor, yet has a 12% increase in payload capacity), this alone hasn't improved their viability in the food industry. Rainer comments: "Many barriers to entry have been addressed. For example only in the last 12-18 months have we made available IP69K certified robots to meet the toughest of hygiene standards."

Over the course of the last 10 years, food manufacturers have faced greater pressure to adhere to increasingly stringent levels of compliance, whether responding to individual Retailer Codes of Practice (COP) or the latest requirements set out by the British Retail Consortium. "Manufacturers looking to improve hygiene, by removing the uncertainty that the human element brings to the equation, have been driving the need for food-grade robots," comments Rainer.

There are other developments, too. "The incredible pace at which vision technology is developing, now with a more economical price tag, greatly improves the accuracy of sorting, picking and placing countless food objects randomly placed across numerous lines," says Rainer. Visual line tracking used by the M3iA/6S to locate the parts, incorporates integrated queue management, so that up to four robots can be directed by a single Fanuc iRVision camera. The picker cell also uses Fanuc's new iRPickTool software which simplifies setup for line tracking systems and minimises programming for customers with picking applications. The software divides incoming product so that each robot in the system picks an equal number of products.

Now with energy reducing technology built into all Fanuc products to reduce power usage with savings in excess of 20%, and guaranteed 25 year parts availability (including obsolescence avoidance solutions), there's never been a better time for food producers to invest in robotics.
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