ABB robotics gives the agri-food industry a taste of the future

ABB robotics

The future has never looked more unpredictable for South Africa’s food and beverage (F&B) sector, as it faces a perfect pressure storm brought on by Covid-19, changing consumer consumption patterns and retail, disrupting supply chains and an ongoing review of food safety.

By Linda Eales, Head of Robotics Division at ABB South Africa

The food and beverage industry has been hit by a few high-profile food safety alerts in recent years and is scrambling to keep up with megatrends such as digitization and changing consumption patterns. The good news is that this could be the perfect opportunity for the local F&B industry to reposition itself for the present and the future.

F&B manufacturers increasingly need more flexibility on their production lines to allow them to adapt to changing consumer tastes and demands. At the same time, they require higher levels of productivity and efficiency, while maintaining the highest levels of product quality. In many cases, the answer to these challenges is to install a robotic solution that makes F&B operations safer and more productive.

Globally, the adoption of robotics is growing rapidly. In an ABB Industry Survey conducted in January 2021 of 1,650 large and small companies in Europe, the United States and China, 84% of companies said they would introduce or increase the use of robotics and technology. automation over the next decade. Almost half (43%) said they are turning to robotics to help them improve workplace health and safety, and more than a third (36%) plan to use robotics to improve performance. quality of the work of their employees.

Unfortunately, the South African restaurant industry lags behind the rest of the world in the implementation of robotics. There are several reasons for this: Robotics is seen as an expensive solution, and there is a lingering perception that robots will take human jobs.

Neither is true. Factories that use robotics tend to have much less breakdowns and much higher productivity. The cost of an installation shut down for several hours far exceeds the cost of a robot. And if anything, factories that install robots often end up creating more human jobs to cope with higher yields. So instead of a team of people manually palletizing 80kg bags of material, a robot can do this job much faster and more efficiently, and people can be redeployed to jobs such as forklift drivers, quality assurance controllers and maintenance agents.

Why robotics is the future of F&B manufacturing

The point is, robotics is nothing new. It has been used at a basic level in the F&B industry for some time now to perform jobs such as ultrasonic cutting of cheeses, cakes and cakes; use water jets to cut buns; assemble meat and fish products in packaging formats prior to primary packaging; and the automated demoulding of various bakery products in the confectionery and biscuit segments.

But it’s getting bigger – and more sophisticated – than ever. Additionally, 85% of those polled in the ABB Global Survey conducted in January 2021 said the pandemic was ‘game-changing’ for their business and industry, with COVID-19 being a catalyst to accelerate investments in automating. Almost half of companies (43%) said they were turning to robotics to help them improve workplace health and safety, 51% said robotics could improve social distancing and more than one thirds (36%) were considering using robotic automation to improve the quality of work for their employees.

In these times of a pandemic, robotics play a key role in ensuring food safety by ensuring staff work safely and removing contamination from by-products. Robots do not carry or transmit germs. This means less risk to worker health and safety, improved food quality and traceability, and allows human workers to perform higher value tasks while ensuring food safety.

Another major driver of automation in the industry is the convenience factor. F&B manufacturers are increasingly challenged to deliver the right range of products, in the right sizes and formats, in the right types of pallet loads, for the right sales channels – at the right time.

Companies that use robotics in their operations are achieving remarkable results. In Brazil, ABB robots are helping Nestlé, the world’s largest food company, improve the productivity of pallet loading at its chocolate factories by 53% using a new palletizing robot solution.

A South African beverage maker reduced the risk of injury and increased productivity through the use of a single robot palletizer. Previously, four people packed boxes and crates at a time, palletizing heavy loads to heights of 1.5m and above, while four others rested. They would then rotate every 30 minutes to an hour. Now the palletizer delivers higher production volumes with lower risk. A number of other South African food producers have increased their production levels by using robots, as robots allow line speeds that cannot be maintained if packaged by hand.

While the initial goal is always to improve efficiency and reduce costs, we also find great flexibility in robots where our customers have many product sizes and packaging formats. Another customer uses robots to pack different formats (500g, 1kg and 2kg bags) in boxes of different sizes without the need to change any mechanical configuration, because packaging robots are more flexible than a system of “pick and place” type of gantry type.

One concern we hear from some F&B operators is that they don’t have the skills to use bots. The point is, employees who are comfortable using a tablet or smartphone will be able to easily program and reprogram the new robots, using ABB’s quick setup and intuitive software tools. Customers will also benefit from ABB’s global industry and application expertise, which has been developed through the installation of over 500,000 robotic solutions since 1974 and supported by ABB’s network of over of 1,000 global partners.

The future is here for the South African restaurant and catering industry. We just have to embrace it.

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