Will Covid-19 speed up automation in the food & beverage sector?
Industrial sectors across the UK – and the wider world – are still getting to grips with the ongoing effect of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Those in food production can’t just shut the doors of manufacturing plants and ‘work from home’, which many in services industries can do.
They have to continue but also find ways in which they can deliver the goods and be mindful of the health and safety requirements as a result of Covid-19.
This has caused executives in many industrial sectors, not just the food and beverage sector, to consider bringing in or increasing automation.
Major 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.
Over the course of two articles, here is a summary of the insight and thoughts on the topic from those organisations.
Why has the UK food sector generally been slow to adopt robot automation and what have been the barriers?
There is a consensus that food manufacturers operate at high volume, but very low margins; therefore, the capacity for many businesses to invest at scale is limited. Significant capital investment tends to happen when a business is either doing well, and is well-financed, or the business is struggling to break even, so they do not have a choice. At that stage, there is a propensity to invest disproportionally in new technology to radically improve performance.
While the financial model of a business is fundamental to future investment, disruptive intervention; particularly during COVID-19, is a key consideration for new ways of working, as is the perception of what it entails. Likened to big IT investments, senior managers are often of the view that new robotic systems need to be bespoke and they cannot be implemented across an organisation’s multiple locations.
There are technical barriers to overcome when dealing with certain food-types, such as chilled food; they are not always easy to automate due to their short run times and biological complexities. There is also a lack of trained engineers, which the manufacturing industry at large is working hard to address.
However, adopting the right level of robot automation can give you flexibility and boost efficiencies, but you need to design it right from the outset. There are lots of opportunities to use robots for end of line packing applications; you can remove people from performing mundane, repetitive, and heavy lifting tasks, which are better suited for robots. You can then migrate parts of the labour force onto tasks where their skills and attributes can add value, while being able to maintain social distancing during a crisis.
Which sub-sectors within food have already adopted robots successfully, and what benefits have they gained?
The bakery industry is certainly one industry that has, among other FMCG sectors, benefited from greater automation to remove heavy manual handling operations. Perhaps the biggest challenge though is not the product itself, but how it is wrapped, which can change frequently with the latest issue being the new tax on plastic packaging (that does not contain at least 30 per cent recycled plastic).
As the manufacturing and retail industries seek to move away from single use plastic, there is renewed interest in 100 per cent paper packaging. Factory automation needs to be able to adapt to avoid machinery becoming obsolete before its time. This move has become stilted through the onset of COVID-19, whereby single use plastic is preferred for reasons of health and safety, and the need to maximise product shelf-life.
Some sub-sectors are now experiencing a much higher take up of robot automation than 10 years ago; particularly in high-volume, high throughput factories, where the return on investment is much shorter. Customers are also looking for more flexibility to administer shorter batches with quick changeovers. This level of flexibility enables factories to upscale or reduce their production times in keeping with scheduled delivery times. In addition, having the option to auto-adjust the size of your product through vision modules on vision-guided robotic picking makes the process even easier. This simply reinforces the need to design the installation correctly with flexibility in mind.
Which sub-sectors do you expect to see progress in the near term, and why?
There is plenty of opportunity for regular pick and place for everyday product-types where the format (of the product) is not really going to change. There are lots of prospective investors in robot technology; however, they expect a return on investment within one to two years, which may of course be achievable in some cases, but certainly not all.
COVID-19 has certainly forced many businesses to think more laterally than they did prior to the lockdown. Also, Brexit, and the new Immigration Bill, which effectively closes the door on the freedom of movement people outside of the UK, is causing labour shortages. If you take agriculture and food processing, for example, UK businesses employ in the region of 100,000 migrant workers; positions that will now need to be filled through alternative means after the transition period ends on 31 December 2020.
If you can counter those variances with robots and automation, it could be seen to be an attractive proposition, even to businesses that are financially stretched. It also helps minimise the COVID-19 reproduction rate from which there have been some well-publicised cases in the food supply chain. Moving away from being over-reliant on predominately low paid migrant labour; especially in rural locations, certainly generates some food for thought
Will social distancing guidelines be the game-changer in delivering automation in food factories?
There are a lot of UK businesses who still employ people to work next to each other on a production line, which remains a real concern during a global pandemic.
While outbreaks of COVID-19 within food factories does little for the industry’s reputation, it is helping to highlight some of the issues. When it comes to automation, though, the key to unlocking the future is about embracing robot automation in a considered and phased approach. This largely entails using robots for the everyday, mundane tasks, and humans for tasks that robots are ill-equipped to perform and where humans can add greater value. This can help spread out the workforce, which then starts to address some of the challenges with social distancing.
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