Breaking down the barriers to automation
What are the barriers to automation in the food and beverage industry?
While some are adopting new methods of manufacturing and taking advantage of technological advances, many remain either unwilling or unable to take this step.
Other industrial sectors such as automotive or aerospace have been using automation and robotics for many years to enhance productivity and efficiency, however this is not the case in F&B.
This summer, BARA – British Association of Robotics and Automation – hosted a virtual round table to assess if the Covid-19 pandemic will drive greater adoption of these technologies.
The round table brought together the Food and Drink Federation, BARA Council, Allied Bakeries, University of Lincoln, Schubert UK, James Mae Industries, and Lloyds Banking Group.
In the second of two articles, the panel look at some of the challenges to automation adoption.
Is the availability of capital or financing holding back greater investment?
When it comes to capital funding, the banks have come on a long way since the economic crash in 2008, and not just through tighter regulatory controls. Once considered to be part of the problem, the banks are now hoping to be part of the solution. If you run a business and are experiencing some pushback regarding capital financing or inflexible loan terms from your current provider, look at different providers or brokers. If you are looking to invest in robot automation, your original equipment manufacturer (OEM) supplier may have an additional contact for you to explore potential funding options for new installations.
Whether you are an SME or a larger multinational, consider getting some expert advice: i.e. from robot integrators or the High Value Manufacturing Catapult centres in the UK, such as the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC), to gain independent advice and guidance. They can help you plan your project; de-risk it and, if you can present those findings as a part of your business case, assist you to secure the necessary finance.
As things stand, the cost (APR rate) to borrow money has never been so cheap, with interest rates predicted to be lower for longer. Despite this, food and drink manufacturers are plagued by security of contract, with more supermarkets and retailers offering shorter-term contracts than in other sectors, such as automotive and aerospace.
Another consideration is look at acquiring the equipment on a leasehold basis, so you do not start paying for the equipment until it is in your factory earning you money. This removes the need for capital investment.
Which developments are coming through which you think will make implementation of robot automation easier / more cost-effective?
Schubert has, for example, developed a Light-Line range of equipment. It uses the same Schubert technology; the same robot control systems, but it is a pre-configured machine. Therefore, you can have a picker line with an integrated flow-wrapper, a cartoner, or case packer; the advantage being the costs are about 30 per cent cheaper than the standard range of equipment from Schubert. Due to its compact configuration, the Light-Line series does come with some nominal scope limitations; however, the lead time on delivery is a lot quicker and the equipment is ready to plug in and switch on.
In addition to the development of digital twins for advanced fast picking robotic systems, another big game-changer is the greater adoption of 3D machine vision technology; in particular, neural networking, which combines artificial intelligence (AI); otherwise known as machine learning or deep learning. If you combine neural networking with new 3D vision cameras, the image processing speed is far superior to your typical classic machine vision, which will have a positive impact on high speed dynamic pick and place systems.
In all cases, it is important to consider the cost of ownership, as well as the cost of purchase; be it financing or capital investment. i.e. How much does it cost to install the equipment, and how much is it going to cost to run and maintain the equipment?
Do we expect a significant increase in the adoption of robot automation soon, and what assistance does the food sector need to achieve this?
Economic downturn is often the stimulus to innovation and new ways of working. If you cast your mind back to the financial crash of 2008, which was a different economic crisis to COVID-19, it was the catalyst for change. For robot density to increase in the UK, it requires the sponsorship of someone senior in the business to get better acquainted with robot automation, to have a significant stake in the success of the project, from inception through to completion. This can, however, prove challenging given the lifecycle of many senior stakeholders; particularly in the top 30 food businesses in the UK.
Therefore, while robot automation is commonplace in some industry sectors, investing in industrial robot technology is a big cultural shift for many organisations. It can be incredibly appealing and key to business success, but there are some barriers to overcome.
The automotive industry learned a long time ago that automation is best delivered in easy to manage bite-sized chunks, and to automate the things that are easier to automate first, before moving onto the more challenging aspects later. It is not about all or nothing, it is about managing the process as well as expectation.
There is a call for the UK Government to place more emphasis on investing in new robot technology; whether it be access to grant funding or tax concessions. When compared to other nations, the UK needs to make “big bets”, especially at a time when it is willing to the splash the cash to get people back to work and get the economy moving again. Investing in new technology should be part of the Government’s recovery plan.
How flexible are automation suppliers? Do they offer initiatives where, like some machinery suppliers, you can pay for every time the machine wraps something, without the need to buy the machine?
A good starting point is to talk to your OEMs to ascertain a realistic payback time. Depreciation is an important consideration; however, if you have very good productivity, then you can always write it off over five years. By this time, if the market moves on, your business will not be saddled with a very expensive asset on the books.
It has not been easy to apply financial leasing to robot automation equipment. This is principally due to the equipment’s residual value at the end of the term. When it comes to asset-based finance leasing for robot automation equipment, options are very limited, but more financial providers are aware of the need for it.
It is quite possible that suppliers of industrial robots will eventually provide a cost per usage contract, much in the same way that Rolls Royce charges a unit cost for flight operators per mile. The same can be applied for packaging machinery, where you are not necessarily paying for the machinery, but each time a consumable passes through it.
Do you think that the harmonised standards for robots’ safety help or hinder the uptake of robotics?
Safety is paramount, and while elements of the ISO 10218 standard are frustrating due to some areas of inflexibility and practical ergonomics, the international standard will inevitably develop over time to ensure that it is fit for purpose within a practical working environment. This may include relaxing some of the guard heights and safe distance zones.
What do you think will be the focus for automation and robotics innovation in the future; will sustainability and hygiene be paramount considerations?
Environmental factors are not a big driver, it is more about productivity and reducing cost. Flexibility of design is key though to ensure it meets a wide range of uses.
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