5 Best Practices for Using Robotics in Your Food Processing Plant

Food and beverage processors are increasingly turning towards robotics for the technology’s slew of benefits including reduced costs, upped throughput and increased food and worker safety. Earlier this month, I contributed to the Food Engineering article, “The rise of robotic automation,” discussing the functionality for robots in the food processing industry. While robotics does boast various benefits to food manufacturing, it’s important to follow some best practices during your own implementation.

Here are five things to consider when using robotics in your food manufacturing facility:

  1. Ensure your robots have the appropriate grippers—When handling different products, you will need to make sure that you have the appropriate grippers for your product. For example, meats can be greasy and slippery, whereas cookies are rigid and more susceptible to crumbling, and paper sacks of flour or sugar can be dusty.

  2. Be mindful of cross-contamination—From a hygienic viewpoint, it is critical to make sure that there isn’t any cross-contamination if there are multiple types of products running on the same robotic cells. If you have one cookie product with nuts and another cookie that doesn’t contain nuts, you need to make sure that you are able to properly clean the grippers between products.

  3. Use robots in pairs for pick-in-place robotic systems—That way, if one goes down for maintenance or for some other reason, the line doesn’t need to be shut down.  Another reason is if your line speeds require running one robot at 100 percent capacity, with two systems you will only run the equipment at 50 percent, increasing your robots’ life and reducing required maintenance.

  4. Think of the ROI when determining the need for robotic case packing or secondary packing applications—There are a lot of times where the line speed isn’t sufficient to justify a robotic packaging application. It may be more cost effective to have a manual or mechanical packing operation. Every operation is unique and must be considered individually when determining which method is more effective. Usually, if you are only running one product, it may be more efficient to explore a mechanical operation. This way, you can set up the equipment and let the machine run the product. In most instances, a mechanical operation will be cheaper than robotics. If you are running multiple products, consider using a robotic system. Often times you can program it to identify different products or packages, which would allow for very few machine adjustments between runs. If you have a wide variety of stock keeping units (SKUs), robotics may be the better option.

  5. Have a safety-first approach for robots handling large materials—A processor should look at a number of different things when determining the specifications for large material-handling robots. The first should be safety. Are there any other laborers nearby who could be hurt if the robot were to mishandle one of the heavy bags? What is the likelihood of this happening? You would have to determine the injury rate of the current operation against the likelihood of the proposed robotic operation.

When specifying a robot to handle heavy bags of dry products or other materials, include a safety factor. For example, if the maximum weight to be handled by the robot is 60 pounds, you should specify a robot designed to handle at least 1.5 times that weight. Just like a human, you don’t want a machine operating at its maximum effort any more than it needs to.


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