The robotic advantage

Published: 29-May-2008

Robots are increasingly being adopted in food and pharmaceutical production environments. Their hygienic design makes them suitable candidates for settings that require pristine conditions, says Frank-Peter Kirgis

The design of hygienic manufacturing equipment plays a crucial role in the food and beverage industry and can have a significant impact on the potential costs in terms of product loss due to contamination, along with any subsequent loss of market confidence. It can also reduce the need for manual labour and thus the opportunity for bio-terrorism.

It is for these reasons, that hygienic product design has taken on the highest of priorities and, coupled with legislative requirements, is perceived as more important than justifying equipment prices.

According to Frank-Peter Kirgis, industry segment manager of food & beverage at ABB Robotics’ consumer industries division, adopting an automated robot line is not only hygienic by design, but also contributes to reducing costs and streamlining processes.

Legislation and standards have been tightened in the hygienic design of machinery for processing and packaging of food products. For example, the European Hygienic Engineering & Design Group (EHEDG) has published best practice guidelines and recommendations to help industry comply with regulations.

One fundamental European regulation is the EU Machinery Directive 98/37/EC. This requires that machinery suppliers meet certain essential hygiene requirements for the handling of foodstuffs. Within this directive, many technical committees (TC) are present. One of these is TC 153, which has prepared the general hygiene standard EN 1672-2: Food Processing Machinery, Part 2: Hygiene Requirements. This standard sets requirements regarding the risks to hygiene arising from machinery and processes.

With increased activity in international trading, failure to comply with overseas legislation can result in goods being barred from a market. In some countries, machinery can come under the same control regulations as the products.

There is growing demand for hygienically designed products and the development of production systems and environments that meet hygienic standards. The hygienic design of production equipment, particularly in the pharma and food industries, is already key in determining a company’s competitiveness.

Hands off for hygiene

The main concern of the food industry is the risk of contamination, whether micro-biological, chemical or from foreign bodies. The costs associated with product recalls and loss of consumer confidence were readily illustrated by the contamination event at Cadbury’s chocolate plant in 2006.

There are several aspects to hygienically designed production lines that engineers should take into consideration. One of the fundamental principles of hygienic design is that machinery should be easy to clean.

As with any other machinery application, end users need to be able to justify such capital investment. The most obvious benefits associated with the installation of robots are those of overcoming labour shortages, better product quality, reduced risks of injuries or strain and improved working conditions. Less obvious are savings linked to a reduced head count, such as a reduction in floor space and facilities.

“In the past, investment criteria for robotic picking, packing and palletising have tended to focus on labour reduction,” says Kirgis. “Other factors are now increasing in importance. The design of easy-to-use hygienic picking and packing robots, facilitated by the design of high-speed washdown robots with integrated vision systems, has focused attention on

the benefits of higher outputs and consistent quality and hygiene.”

Historically, robotic companies have not developed a solution specifically designed for the food and beverage industry, but rather adapted robots from automotive applications. The rare exception is ABB Robotics’ FlexPicker.

The FlexPicker is a robot in applications where objects need to be moved quickly and precisely, one at a time, from one location to another. The FlexPicker wash-down version features a special paint finish, corrosion resistant material, sealed components and a specially designed fourth axis with slide bearings, for easy cleaning using detergents. The FlexPicker is one example where robots have been specifically designed with hygiene in mind for use in packaging applications with open food, such as meat, dairy products and ready-made meals. To meet the most stringent demands, a stainless steel wash-down version is also available.

Tangible benefits

In spite of the possible perception that robots may be inappropriate for food applications where hygienic wash down is required, the situation has changed and there is no longer a reason to dismiss the advantages such automation brings. Food manufacturers need to reassess their strategy to identify opportunities to exploit the advantage of integrating robotics into packaging and handling operations.

As the tangible benefits of robotic solutions become ever more apparent, it is widely expected that robotics will be adopted at a much higher rate in industries such as food and pharmaceuticals. The hygienic design of robots improves food quality and safety, and can also extend the life of machinery and equipment, as well as reducing labour and maintenance costs.

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