The future has never looked more unpredictable for South Africa’s food and beverage sector as it battles a perfect storm of pressure brought on by Covid-19, changing consumer and retail consumption patterns, disrupted supply chains and ongoing scrutiny around food safety.
Food and beverage manufacturers increasingly need more flexibility on their production lines to enable 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 robotic solutions, which make operations safer and more productive.
Globally, the uptake of robotics is growing rapidly. In a 2021 ABB survey of 1650 large and small producers in Europe, the US and China, 84% of respondents said they would introduce or increase the use of robotics and automation in the next decade. Nearly half (43%) said they were looking to robotics to help them improve workplace health and safety and more than a third (36%) are considering using robotics to improve the quality of work for their employees.
Unfortunately, the South African industry is lagging the rest of the world in implementing robotics. There are a couple of 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. Plants that use robotics tend to have far fewer breakdowns and far higher productivity. The cost of a plant standing still for several hours far outweighs the cost of a robot. And if anything, plants that install robots often end up creating more human jobs to cope with higher outputs. So instead of a team of people manually palletising 80 kg bags of material, a robot can do that job faster and more effectively and the people can be re-deployed in jobs like forklift drivers, quality assurance controllers and maintenance operatives.
Is robotics the future of food and beverage manufacturing?
The fact is that robotics is nothing new. It has been used at a basic level in the food and beverage industry for some time now to do jobs like the ultrasonic cutting of cheeses, cakes and gateaux; using water jets to cut bread rolls; collating meat and fish products into packing formats before primary packaging; and the automated de-panning of various bakery products in the confectionary and biscuit segments.
In these times of pandemic, robotics can play a key role in ensuring food safety by ensuring personnel work safely and eliminating by-product contamination. Robots don’t carry or transmit germs. This means fewer risks to workers’ health and safety, improved food quality and traceability and frees up human workers to perform higher-value tasks while securing food safety.
The businesses that are using robotics in their operations are seeing remarkable results. In Brazil, ABB robots are supporting Nestlé to improve the productivity of pallet loading in its chocolate manufacturing facilities by 53%, using a new palletising robot solution.
A South African beverages manufacturer has reduced the risk of injury and increased productivity using a single robot palletiser. Previously, four people would pack cartons and crates at a time, while another four would rest. They would then rotate every hour. Now, the palletiser is delivering higher production volumes at lower risk.
While the initial drive is always to improve efficiency and reduce costs, there is also great flexibility in robots where a producer has many product sizes and pack formats. For example, another client is using robots to pack different formats (500 g, 1 kg and 2 kg bags) into various sized boxes without the need to change any mechanical setup, as the packing robots are more flexible than a gantry type ‘pick-and-place’ system.
One concern that we’re hearing from some F&B; operators is that they don’t have the skills to use robots. Fact is, employees who are comfortable with operating a tablet or smartphone will be able to program and re-program the new robots with ease, using ABB’s fast set-up and intuitive software tools. The future is here for South Africa’s food and beverage industry – we must just embrace it.
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