Tomorrow's world

Processing lines can be tough - even dangerous - places to work. Adam Baker looks at what is being done to streamline the process

There was a little snippet of the news in April that did not seem to get much wider coverage in the national and international media. In a five-year collaboration between computer scientists and biologists at Aberystwyth and Cambridge universities, experts had come up with the first robot to "discover" new scientific knowledge independently of humans. In a way, it meant a robot had made a discovery.

It was not that the robot had come up with the findings alongside humans. It had come up with the discovery all on its own. The laboratory robot, called Adam, formed a hypothesis on the genetics of bakers' yeast and carried out experiments to test its predictions. The result was a series of "simple but useful" discoveries on the gene coding for yeast enzymes, which was confirmed by scientists, reported the Financial Times. With many processing plants in meat, as well as other foodstuffs, and pharmaceutical and car manufacturers automating more than ever before, a development like this begs the question as to how far robots can take companies further? If robots are now starting to make rudimentary discoveries on their own, what can they discover in the future, when the technology improves? And how will they change the working practices of companies that use robots, such as meat processors in processing lines?


Turning Japanese

Last year, TM Robotics, which is responsible for the sales, marketing and support of Toshiba Machine's Industrial Robots throughout Europe, opened new offices in Hertfordshire. At the time, managing director Nigel Smith described the opening as a crucial part of the overall company strategy, which focused TM Robotics on getting closer to distributors and integrators and providing them with improved training and support facilities. Smith now reckons that, undoubtedly, the industry is seeing quicker throughput as a result of equipment such as Toshiba's range of SCARA arms and other machines in automated production, which can carry large-sized, heavy workpieces. "This means an improved bottom line, as well as more flexibility for manufacturers, both of which are god-sends in constricted economic times, when consumers are reducing their spends in the supermarket," Smith says.

"Traditionally, SCARAs have only been used on end-of-line packing and in sealing, labelling and packaging, but not in picking up products in primary packaging or food manufacture. But recent innovations, such as IP65 sealed units and IP65 sealed hoods, mean that the machines can now be used earlier in the process. You could easily have one SCARA in the manufacturing part of the line, another packing into plastic primary packaging and a further robot palletising, shrink-wrapping or loading. In fact, at the recent Anuga show in Cologne, we had a system like this, assembling beef burgers and packing them ready for shipping. Robots were handling the entire process - it was completely automated."

Yet despite Smith's enthusiasm, one of the great fears for workers, unions and some governments is that more and more robots will lead to more and more people unemployed.

Malcolm Burgess, managing director of Union Food Machinery & Equipment (UFM) feels that automation will mean the inevitable loss of line personnel. While he says that traditional solutions, such as pumps and conveyors are still essential, they are now complemented by the use of robotics, particularly at the end of the line for packing and boxing.

However, TM Robotics' Smith argues that increased use of robots in the processing line gives companies the opportunity to place staff in different positions in the operation. "More robots in production will inevitably mean fewer people," he says. "But this allows the manufacturer to redeploy staff into other positions in the plant, again creating more flexibility. Furthermore, robots normally complete mundane or repetitive tasks. This means that employees are protected from repetitive strain injury (RSI) and makes them available for more interesting jobs, reducing job dissatisfaction. Robots can also complete tasks that people cannot do or find uncomfortable - such as working in low ambient temperatures or reaching into ovens, for instance."

Smith certainly does not think the government needs to worry about robots adding to unemployment levels, as he feels that, in the past, advancing technology has always brought about greater employment and enfranchisement rather than making people redundant, either literally or figuratively. "It's a little bit like worrying that the telephone will put postmen out of work," he adds. "I predict yet more automation, including greater uptake of industrial robots from Cartesians [another TM Robotics range] and SCARAs to six-axis machines. I anticipate that you will find more robots involved in food production and they may even become a source of recipe uploads, thanks to inbuilt PLCs (programmable logic controllers) and intelligence in some models. There is going to be a revolution in the food industry, comparable to the mass introduction of robotics into the automobile industry in the late 1970s and early '80s."


Automation, not robotics

Increased automation is a clear trend for the future of processing lines, says Reiser UK MD Peter Mellon, but he believes processors are looking for automated, rather than robotic, lines. Processors are not seeking to remove workers from the processing floor altogether, he says, but are looking to improve on efficiencies and throughput where possible. He notes that greater automation in meat processing equipment and production lines can improve efficiencies and gain higher yield and productivity. "A more recent development, notable over the last six to eight months as the credit crunch takes hold," he says, "has been an increasing number of processors looking for ways to save on labour and its associated costs through automation.

"Quality, in the eyes of the processor, means low variation. Development in automation means it can now offer both consistent quality and low variation. Errors and inconsistencies in the processing line generally stem from people; machines don't make mistakes."

At AEW Delford, marketing director Tony Ambrose says: "More and more robots will populate the floor and, as we are in the forefront of this technology, we are well-placed to meet the demand for all kinds of food processing applications. Our intelligent portion-loading robots can be found in processing plants across the world."

Ambrose notes that the company is now designing and developing high-performance machines and systems that consume less energy, thanks to greatly increased levels of automation, better space utilisation and advanced, innovative engineering. "This will achieve more integrated and streamlined production, combined with lower operating costs for a wide range of food processing applications," he says.

Mark Bishop, Interfood Technology director, says he has seen increased use of robotics in certain areas of processing - for example to improve productivity and flexibility on a processing line. He notes that, in recent years, there has been an increase in the automation of the various processes. "For the larger processing lines, the ways in which different machines can be integrated as seamlessly as possible and how they work with each other is increasingly important. The quality of the equipment we supply is vitally important to us, of course, but that is really only half the story. It is also about having the expertise and experience to ensure it works at maximum productivity - and that is about the people you employ." Pre-delivery site checks, being on-hand when production begins, planned maintenance schedules and having the engineering back-up to respond swiftly and efficiently if problems do occur in the processing line is what customers are looking for, he says, adding, "It is about the whole package."


At the sharp end

Robotics debate aside, how are the various companies working on their technology to improve the processing line function and meet the demands of their customers? At the moment, TM Robotics is launching a system called EasyCell, which is said to allow users to transfer DXF (drawing interchange/exchange format) data directly from CAD (computer-aided design) into the robot, allowing it to perform complex movements with a single touch of a button. "The focus of this, as with almost everything we have done for years, is to make the use of robots even easier for our customers," says Smith. "We have also launched a range of ceiling-mounted SCARA robots, which allow the user to save floor space in the robot cell. In addition, there has been a range of IP65 covers for food packagers and manufacturers, allowing any SCARA to be converted into an IP65 device and a range of IP65 robots that don't require covers. As a result, the same robot can now be used for primary and secondary packaging - or even for assembling foodstuffs, such as burgers and ready meals. For food and pharmaceutical manufacturers this really improves the versatility of the SCARA robot."

AEW Delford's Ambrose feels that more and more processors seem to prefer one source of supply for all their processing systems and because the responsibility then rests with one supplier, communications are then more simplified and less time is taken. "We have become a member of the Marel Group, so we can now offer them a wide range of machines and systems tailored precisely to their needs - from an individual machine to a complete processing plant," he says.

"Our new range - PolyLine, PortionLine, Baconline and End of Line - provides a complete solution for slicing, portioning, robot-loading, weighing, labelling and packing of cooked meats, cheese, bacon, fresh meat and fish. All of these machines benefit from real-time process control and monitoring at every stage of production, thanks to Innova, Marel's revolutionary control software."

Ambrose believes that customers demand a good return on their investment from a processing line and explains that AEW Delford achieves this by providing reliable, advanced machines and systems with high standards of performance and hygiene, which deliver high yields with low downtime and low labour costs/manning levels. "We also pride ourselves in offering excellent after-sales service and service agreements," he says.


The need for speed

UFM's Burgess reckons the requirement for greater production speed and product consistency, as well as traceability, have led to sales of larger equipment and more sophisticated control systems. "Demands are driven by those factors," he says, so speed and consistency are essential, as are flexibility, ease of break-down and hygiene. UFM's Laska range has a programme of continuous improvement, adds Burgess. The introduction of the new Nano Cutter, a high-capacity emulsifier for volume producers of emulsified goods, part of the Laska Automation Programme, is proof of the company's aim to stay at the forefront of production line technology.

Meanwhile, hygiene has also become a prime focus for Interfood, as the food industry and consumers in general have become much more aware of food safety issues. As a result, the hygiene of food processing plants, both in terms of the practices adopted and the ease with which the equipment can be cleaned and maintained, is much higher on the agenda, says Bishop.

Interfood recently launched the total cooked meat Polar processing line, which can be controlled at every level, says Bishop, from bar-coded batch-loading through to injection, tenderising, lacerating and massaging. "The whole operation can be managed by just three people and there is no need for any bins or dolaf bin tippers between machines. Everything is on scales, which means correction of brine or dry ingredients can be done at any stage. Green and injected weights are also recorded. This line goes through to and includes the Marlen pump and Poly-clip clipper, all ensuring that our customers now have the ability to record and control all that happens at every stage of a modern processing line."

Reiser's Mellon says that, for his company, customers' top priorities when investing in a new processing line are a high level of efficiency, maximisation of throughput and consistent quality. In the past, he adds, processors have sacrificed quality for higher throughput, but for Reiser, Mellon says the firm is constantly updating its equipment to meet demands for both quality and speed.

"Within the last few months, Reiser has installed a new high-speed tray sealing packaging line for modified atmosphere packing - the Reiser SLTS850 - for a UK meat processor." Mellon says. "The machine comes in several different models and is capable of running at speeds of up to 150 packs/minute. The new range has many advantages over competitive tray-sealing machines."


What downturn?

Over in Belgium, processing line machinery manufacturer FAM says companies are still demanding the parts to keep their processing lines working, despite the recent stutter in the world's economy. "FAM and its agent and distributor network keep on selling worldwide at a good and growing pace," says marketing manager Marc De Peuter. "In our opinion, the food industry is less cyclical and there are numerous market segments or regions that are just starting out with industrial cutting of food. However, we are making great efforts to help our customers and prospects understand how FAM products and solutions can create value for them. This can mean very basic saving on expenditures for spare parts or maintenance costs."

De Peuter feels that, by listening to customers and understanding what it takes for them to be competitive and successful, a machinery company can successfully adapt to tough economic times. Innovation, flexibility and a sense of urgency are all essential in responding to the needs of the clients, he adds.

"FAM believes strongly that it can make a valuable contribution to food safety," he says. "The new FAM Hymaks is the result of a unique and uncompromising sanitary design. It was built together with strong and demanding industry leaders and important regulating bodies, such as the USDA-Dairy in the US and the Fleischerei Berufsgenossenschaft (meat industry association) in Germany. In particular for the meat and cheese industry, easy cleanability and heavy-duty and precise cutting are making life easier." De Peuter adds that food safety, operating expenditures, innovating capacity, diversification in both markets and regions and flexibility are the key issues for the industry at the moment.


Future outlook

So are robots really about to take over the world of meat processing? TM Robotics' Smith says the anticipated massive take-up of robotics in the food industry has not yet happened, but adds the fact it is still being talked about means that it will. "It's not as simple as companies choosing to stick with their old ways in the face of the obvious cost benefits of robotics.

"The fundamental sticking point is the myth that robots are difficult to install and operate. Faced with the inherent cost benefits of a 24/7 operation, lower maintenance and increased speed, too many people look for the disadvantages and presume that because industrial robots are high technology, they must be difficult to operate. But your TV is high technology and it isn't difficult to understand. Toshiba Machine's robots are easy to use, but in this sense, 'easy' means productivity, efficiency and professionalism, as well as just 'simple to operate'."

In short, it is unlikely that robots will completely dictate the future of processing lines, but increased automation to improve efficiency and flexibility, as well as respond quickly and easily to customer demand, is a clear trend for the future of modern processing lines.



Case study: Ishida - Cascade Marine Foods, United Arab Emirates

When an Emirates food processor needed to double production output and reduce giveaway and downtime for its processing line, the installation of new multihead weighers helped to achieve this goal claims the company.

Cascade Marine Foods, which is a major supplier of IQF (individually quick-frozen) added-value protein products, such as chicken nuggets, burgers, kebabs, meatballs, worked alongside Ishida to help it in its work in targeting the growing ready-meals market. Cascade's latest introductions to the retailing sector include BBQ chicken wings, Chicken Biryani and Thai Curry where pack target weights vary from 250g up to 1kg catering packs with the majority of products packed into plastic pillow bags using VFFS (Vertical Form-Fill-Seal) machines.

Cascade recently installed its third Ishida weigher, a CCW-RS-210/30-WP into its processing line where it is said the 10-head weigher benefits from the increased speed and accuracy of Ishida's mid-range RS-Series. The continuous flow of product through the machine is assured, adds Ishida, by using a loadcell and software, which monitors the product supply to the top of the weigher and adjusts the vibration amplitude and frequency of the dispersion table and vibratory feeders to ensure an efficient product supply to the weigh heads.

Top speeds are claimed to be between 40 and 60 packs per minute and these are dependent on pack target weight and the constant supply of product from the IQF freezers. The weigher's waterproof construction is also said to be fast and easy to clean. The processing line is also now said to have improved in hygiene and, therefore, better quality has been achieved.

"Ishida really has made a difference to our operation and contributed greatly to its success," says Cascade chief engineer M. A. Remigius. "Put simply, they have helped us to double production output, while increasing hygiene and quality levels, with equipment that is fast and reliable and easy to operate.

"Equally important is that their levels of service are exemplary and, since the Ishida Middle East office is now only 30 minutes from us, if we ever do have a problem, we can rely on an engineer being with us almost before we put the phone down."