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Stäubli: food firms need to catch up to robots

By Fiona Barry , 02-Dec-2013

Stäubli's TP80 Fast Picker at Europack Euromanut CFIA 2013
Stäubli's TP80 Fast Picker at Europack Euromanut CFIA 2013

There is a changing mentality towards using automation in the food industry but the shift will not lead to job losses, according to Stäubli.

Compared to other manufacturing industries, agribusiness is under-robotised, said Jean-Pierre Geney, market development manager, at the engineering firm.

The difficulty in the food industry is that very little is automated. The process of cleaning, for instance, is very complex,” he toldFoodProductionDaily.com.

“It’s a very manual job. But the industry has been confronted with musculoskeletal problems in workers.

There’s a changing mentality: people are starting to realise robots are not complicated, and they don’t require a lot of maintenance. You don’t need a PhD to install them.”

 ‘We would have closed’

When we asked whether a more automated future would mean job losses, Geney said: “Not today. Often the only way to save a company going badly is to automate.

The firm will have the same number of employees, but it can then put the people doing manual jobs in quality control positions that are more interesting. It just requires a bit of training.

We’ve had a food manufacturer tell us ‘If we hadn’t robotised one of our lines, we would have closed.’

Factories will always need someone at the end of the line with a good eye.”

Loose pieces danger

The future of the food industry will see more robots for repetitive or awkward tasks, he said.

Frozen food would be particularly suited to greater automation, he said, because it is cumbersome for workers to wear protective gloves and clothing when handling cold products. 

The limiting factor for robot evolution is worker safety, he said. At the moment, pick-and-place machines like Stäubli’s FastPicker are encased by large clear panels and finding a way to remove them would take time.

It would be expensive to take the barrier down,” said Geney, not only because of the robot’s movement but due to the danger of sorted parts flying loose.

Pick-and-place machine

Stäubli was at Europack Euromanut CFIA to demonstrate its TP80 FastPicker robot for food packaging, and Linemanager, software for running automated production lines.

Fast Picker is a pick-and-place robot capable of 200 movements per minute. It carries loads of up to 1kg and has an 800mm reach and 100mm stroke.

It’s completely enclosed,” said Geney, “and you can use high pressure hoses on it.

The company says FastPicker’s single arm does not interfere with the camera’s line of vision, and is slim enough to access narrow machine slots.

The robot works with Stäubli’s software, said the company’s market development manager. “With Linemanager you can manage the speed and choice of each part. The problem with a multi-robot line is telling each robot what to do in relation to the next one.

With this software, the sensor communicates with the second robot in the line, to tell it how to behave.”

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