No matter what your age and generation, robots have long captivated the imagination–from casual connoisseurs of popular culture to rabid science fiction aficionados alike. The Cyclops-inspired “Gort” from the 1951 film, The Day the Earth Stood Still, remains an iconic image of futuristic alien technology to this day. In the 1960s, it was a protective and simply named “The Robot” from TV’s Lost in Space that was the mechanical friend every boy on Earth hoped to have...
Actually, the first known industrial robot was built by “Bill” Griffith P. Taylor in 1937. Powered by a single electric motor, this crane-like device had five axes of movement, including grab and grab rotation. Punched paper-tape energized its solenoids to achieve automation; this then facilitated the movement of the crane’s control levers. The “Taylor” robot could stack wooden blocks in pre-programmed patterns.
The next evolution of industrial robots came in the 1950s and 1960s when George Devol applied for the first robotics patents in 1954 (granted in 1961). He co-founded Unimation, which was the first company to produce robots called “programmable transfer machines” because their main use initially was to transfer objects from one place to another using hydraulic actuators.
Today, robots are utilized every single day in almost every industry including Agriculture, Automotive, Construction, Healthcare, Research, Law Enforcement, Military, Mining, Transportation, Utilities, and of course, Food Processing and Manufacturing.
But robots are no longer used only to simply sort and stack products in warehouses. As the universal demands of food production continue to grow, so do the complexities and functionalities of robots designed specifically for its use. In fact the company, Universal Robots, was founded within the Danish food industry when CTO and founder, Esben Oestergaard, began working on how to optimize and find automation solutions for production processes that changed constantly in a high mix, low volume setting. The first robotic task he wanted to accomplish was putting pepperoni on a pizza! Now that robots are becoming more and more common in food manufacturing, they are ideal solutions for processing, primary and secondary packaging, as well as palletizing applications.
Automation has often been coined synonymously with robots and robotics, and although there is an obvious association and connection between them, modern functioning robots can perform much more than simple automatic and redundant duties. Peter Kempf, vision engineer with Chromasens, explains that automation is also increasingly penetrating the entire food production and delivery chain. “From autonomously driving agricultural machines over food processing, sorting and packaging, the use of machines is replacing more and more manual work hours.” Chromasens specializes in designing machine vision hardware like color imaging and measurement cameras for high quality color differentiation and inspection during production.
According to Raad Asmaro, authorized system integrator sales for FANUC America Corporation, the implementation of robots provides a variety of benefits for food producers and manufacturers–including: higher throughput; improved product consistency, hygiene, and flexibility; reduced workspace requirements (smaller footprint); and increased efficiencies which help manufacturers increase their competitive position. “Typically customers look for speed and reliability in robots. They are always concerned with production demands such as increasing throughput and sustaining uptime,” he adds. FANUC offers the most complete range of industry-leading products and services for robotics, CNC systems, and factory automation solutions.
It is no surprise that food production, processing and sorting are challenging, even to advanced technologies. This is especially true with food because it is a natural product that exhibits large variations in size, color, weight, softness, texture and surface features. These are all typically difficult to deal with by machines that are traditionally built to do repetitive work without much inherent adaptation to the objects they are manipulating.
Kempf notes that machines used in the food production and delivery chain must be extremely reliable and robust (just imagine a screw lost in food resulting in people breaking their teeth). “At the same time, they must run clean and be kept clean to the point of being sterile in some applications--and due to the challenges described above, they must increasingly become flexible and adapt to the individual food objects they deal with.”
To address these types of industry needs, companies like FANUC offer a wide range of robot models designed specifically for food processing and manufacturing. Asmaro adds that FANUC’s emphasis on development means that it continuously introduces new and improved products to meet its customers’ production requirements. “A recent example is the integration of machine vision and force sensing in all FANUC robots to accommodate virtually any application. We are dedicated to increasing the competitiveness of North and South American manufacturers by creating opportunities to help them maximize their efficiency, reliability, quality, and profitability.”
Universal Robots area sales manager, Cynthia Kradjel, sees agriculture and food production as the next robot frontier. “We’re already firmly positioned within many manufacturing industries such as metal and machining, electronics, and automotive because of the benefits offered by our robots.” She believes that robots in the food industry will continue to optimize production, increase competiveness, and free up labor for more challenging tasks. “We’re now introducing food and agriculture to the ways our robots can make a difference in production and packaging along the entire journey from farm to refrigerator,” she adds.
One tangible example of robot integration into food processing is found at Cascina Italia, which processes millions of eggs per day. By using Universal Robots’ UR5 robot in its production facilities, the Italian company has improved flexibility and operational efficiency. This collaborative robot relieves employees from the strenuous process of preparing bulky packages for large-scale distribution. The added benefit of the UR5’s fenceless-operation allows the robot to work side-by-side with employees on the production lines.
“It was important for us to be able to install the robot in quite space-limited areas. To retain full flexibility we need to be able to react to the demands of the market, which starting from four sizes of eggs picked based on their weight, allows us to produce more than 220 commercial options in different formats, depending on the type of packaging required, ” said Ruggero Moretti, facility manager of Cascina Italia.
“We are convinced that the collaborative robot solution is extremely useful for facilities like ours that have constraints on flexibility, available space and budgets for investment, which make traditional robotic solutions difficult to implement. The results obtained so far are excellent, so much so that we expect return on our initial investment in less than a year, with the additional advantage of having further refined and improved the quality of our packaging processes.”
It is likely, as Moretti alludes, there probably would not be any robots present in the food industry if their use did not also provide overall, bottom-line savings--even after the initial investment as well as continual maintenance and upgrade costs.
Kempf believes that the food industry has been notoriously cost-conscious. “As a result, its machines must be cost-effective, which can not only be achieved by lower cost manufacturing, but also by increasing performance and throughput.” In other words, the more reliably that machines perform their tasks, the fewer manual (and costly) interventions needed.
Kradjel agrees that robot purchasers are all looking for ways to optimize their production in a cost-effective, easy and safe way. Universal Robots has addressed this need by making its robots both accessible and affordable. “We pioneered collaborative robots, and in doing so, have lowered the automation barrier tremendously by placing robotics within reach of even small operations, that up until now, have viewed robotics as too costly and complex.”
But the industry would still not want to compromise quality for the sake of cost savings. After all, the quality of food is just as important as its accessibility to the masses. Kempf finds that robots help to create a consistent and reproducible quality of food products at lower and lower costs. “For instance, the cleanness of the process in delivering healthy and clean food products is vital. As the natural production process (growth on farmland) inevitably produces a certain percentage of non-quality products, the importance of food sorting for quality becomes more and more evident.”
The future abilities of robots working in tandem with food production are evolving every day. One such new adaptation is related to visual recognition. Kempf explains that vision inspection and sorting are also increasingly penetrating the food production chain as the result of an increased emphasis on the visual appearance of food products. “Machine vision capabilities have increased so much that food products can now be inspected from a precise color, form, and structure point of view to perfectly match their appearances to the expectations of consumers.”
Robots also continue to become more and more precise in their overall movements (even mimicking human physical manipulability), are directed and programmed by complex and advanced software, and are already beginning to “learn” and teach themselves adaptive and self-correcting functions through artificial intelligence engineering. But the big question on many people’s minds about the continuing use of robots in the workforce is, “How will robots ultimately affect human jobs?”
Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the Center for Digital Business at MIT, is the co-author of the book, The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies. In one recent interview, he explains that there has always been job destruction because of automation and technological progress. “The important thing to keep in mind is that there has also always been job creation because of these same forces.” Yet still, McAfee believes the U.S. is heading toward a “labor-light economy” as a direct consequence to an ever increasing use of and dependency upon robots and technology in the workplace. For example, artificial intelligence linked with automated driving will impact people who drive for a living. He also thinks that robotics will continue to replace human manual and physical jobs in manufacturing.
But Asmaro contends that robots rarely eliminate food manufacturing jobs. “When a worker’s task is replaced by a reliable machine, that person’s responsibilities often shift to handle more complex tasks within the company. Automation allows food manufacturer to become more efficient, sanitary, and profitable.”
Kempf agrees that there are still many domains in the food processing industry where human intervention is absolutely needed. “But the progress that has been made in imaging products (like Chromasens’), machine vision (image processing) and object handling (robotics) will not stop to reduce the number of these domains in the coming decades, achieving higher quality at lower costs for large quantities of food needed throughout the world.”
Whatever the future holds, robots are definitely here to stay. Although there may not be a humanlike C-3PO or Lieutenant Commander Data created during mankind’s current lifetime, with drones replacing pilots, cars navigating without drivers, and just about everyone talking to their smart phones for information–perhaps the robots of our imaginations are much closer to reality now than even the most brilliant science-fiction authors and industrial inventors could have ever envisioned.
You can read more of Christopher’s work at www.cussat.com.