Fact or fabrication: Busting the myths surrounding robotics

Paul Boughton

Paul Wilkinson addresses the most common preconceptions about the use of robot systems in the food and drink industry and tackles some of the most persistent myths head-on

Robotic systems are more sophisticated and varied than ever. In many industrial operations, they have long been integrated into wider automation and production processes and are accepted as making a key contribution to overall plant efficiency.

So why are so many SMEs, particularly within the food and drink industry, still deterred by the technology and cautious about applying it to their processing and packaging operations? As an automation and robotic integrator, Pacepacker Services has worked with more than 2,400 companies in the past 10 years and watched the UK market for robotics develop and grow. 

Myth 1: Robots are too expensive

As with any capital equipment, you need to look at the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO). A robot is typically a ‘fit and forget’ device requiring much less maintenance than the mechanical equivalent. For example, when end-users have the choice between installing a traditional layer palletiser versus a robot, the vast majority, in our experience, will choose the robot. The robotic capital cost itself may end up being less, but in any case, the robot will nearly always outperform the palletiser.

For those with seasonal variations in business, or SMEs taking their first steps into automation, a new robotic installation isn’t the only option. Pacepacker regularly supplies Blu-Robots, pre-owned robot arms, typically originating from the automotive industry. While Blu-Robots often have two-thirds of their operating life still ahead of them, they are typically half the cost of a new system.

Neither should companies forget that the UK’s Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has extended its higher-threshold Annual Investment Allowance (AIA) to the end of 2015. This now yields 100% corporate income tax relief on capital investment on plant and equipment up to £500,000.

Myth 2: We don’t have the in-house expertise for robots

The British Automation and Robot Association (BARA) recently said it believed the ‘fear factor’ was more of a deterrent than capital cost when it came to investment. Certainly, engineering departments may be wary of technologies they are not familiar with. As with any technology, businesses can determine how far they want to develop in-house expertise and balance that against out-of-house support. Training can be tailored to individual needs.

Nine times out of 10, our telephone support team can talk customers through any issues and how to put them right. Likewise, remote diagnostics is on the rise and means that problems can be tackled even more swiftly and directly.

Realistically, the causes of production shutdowns are more likely on the mechanical sections of a line. However, because today’s palletising robots incorporate 20% fewer parts than the preceding generation, there is less that can go wrong. The reliability factor with robot systems exceeds 99.9%.

Myth 3: Once installed, a robot is a one trick pony

To suggest that a single robotic system has unlimited flexibility would be untrue. Any new re-tasking must take into account the payload, reach and speed capacity of your operation. That said, once you have taken these three requirements into account, it is relatively straightforward to re-programme a robot to perform another task, using different end effectors where necessary. When you compare the flexibility of robots with mechanical alternatives, the lifespan longevity of a robot is far greater and therefore offers a much better TCO.

For stability, robots are typically mounted on to a frame or a base bolted to the floor. However, even these can be easily moved and redeployed, where necessary.

Myth 4: A robot is complicated to set up and programme

One thing that often surprises new customers is we handle all the set-up and programming of a robot, so once installed it’s ready to begin production. This gives customers the time to get familiar with their new equipment, under the guidance of our team. Later down the line customers may choose to extend their knowledge and invest in developing greater in-house expertise. This can be valuable for troubleshooting production issues, or when you are looking to add new programmes and functionality. 

Myth 5: Robots are dangerous

There are potential dangers to many devices and vehicles. The same is true of robots. The secret is to recognise, manage and mitigate any risks, ensuring operatives are trained and that safeguards are introduced.

Robotic safety measures start with ensuring that the mechanical barriers - including perimeter guarding, panelling or mesh - are fit for purpose. Of course, access has to be possible, whether for changing pallets or cleaning, but any point of entry must have the requisite interlock safety switch, safety curtain or light guard. Where our experience as integrators really comes into its own is in the way that these all-important safety measures interface with the robot system itself.

Previously, it may have been feasible to re-programme a robot or manually manipulate it to breach the perimeter guarding. However, the latest generation of robots often have software, like FANUC’s Dual Check Safety, and this enables us as integrators to pre-programme a permissible area of movement beyond which it cannot reach.

Myth 6: A bespoke robot takes longer than other types of automation to install

This is a common misconception, rooted in the idea that robots are more complex and higher-value than other pieces of equipment, and therefore must take longer to install! In fact, the reverse is often true, largely because programming can be carried out before a robot leaves the factory. The same is true of pre-testing, even where a larger system is delivered in sections prior to installation. For customers, this minimises any production disruption on the line.

Myth 7: A robot is more difficult to integrate into a line sourced from different manufacturers than other types of equipment

Another falsehood - the physical versatility of a robot arm is likely to offer a greater number of options in terms of line layout than other pieces of equipment. The infeed and outfeed from a robot can be at any angle and at any height required. So in fact, far from limiting flexibility in a line layout, it can compensate for the lack of flexibility in other sections of the line.

Interlocking with upstream and downstream equipment is another area where experience is an invaluable asset. Over the years, we have engineered interfaces with all types of equipment from all sorts of manufacturers, and this is never a problem, whatever forms of automation are involved. Of course, control systems can differ; but even where different architecture is used, and one control system cannot ‘talk’ directly to another, a simpler – rather than more complex – interface can always be established.

Myth 8: Vision systems are a necessary and costly part of any robotic installation

Most robot installations do not have – and do not need – any sort of vision system. If you can design your upstream handling to ensure that a product or pack arrives in a consistent orientation, it makes sense to combine this with a simple (and cost-effective) sensor system. Vision can be complex, potentially costly, and only as good as the lit environment where it operates.

Vision has its place, and in some cases will be unavoidable. In those situations, it is often possible to combine a ‘product locating’ role with, for example, quality control functions. Our goal is to keep installations as robust and simple to operate and maintain as feasible and we wouldn’t introduce a vision system unless it was fully warranted. If required in the future, they can always been introduced.

Myth 9: Robotics is more relevant to other higher-margin engineering industries and dedicated operations than it is to food and drink

Most people imagine that a freestanding robot is more likely to inhabit an automotive plant than a food factory. To suggest that they are somehow more suited to heavy engineering than food-and-drink production is not putting manufacturers off deploying robots. In fact, the way the sector’s export and import market is evolving, and the emphasis on quality and protecting brand reputation, robots will continue to play a key role moving forward. The growing range of end effectors and handling techniques, from vacuum to finger-type gripping, mean that there is a solution for every type of item from a fragile fruit to a rigid, flat-topped carton.

Lower margins in food and drink means we are observing a big impetus to invest in robotics. For example, we recently installed systems at small farm-based operations where a pre-owned robot arm packs potatoes for shipping out to fish & chip shops and other customers.

Myth 10: The payback time for a robot is too long, especially given the short-term retail contracts that are typical of the food and drink sector

It is understandable why smaller businesses may be wary of investment in an environment where costs are continuously under pressure and competition for shelf space is more intense than ever. On the flipside, these reasons are why companies opt to automate, as it enhances product quality and operational efficiency and reduces waste. The benefits are not just realised by the manufacturer, but also retail consumers. That can help to reinforce existing supply contracts and win new ones.

We know the realities of getting product out of the door, on time and to the required quality, to meet current contracts. Some of the most thriving food businesses are successful because they look beyond these challenges and size up their future options as well their present commitments.

When it comes to those all-important costs, remember that system specifications can be tailored to keep prices as low as possible. This in turn means that real payback times will often be much shorter than customers regularly anticipate, though this will be application-dependent.

Finally, if the opportunities for deploying a particular robot ever are exhausted, like any other piece of equipment it remains an asset and will have a resale price.

Myth 11: Robots replace people and, given today’s flexible workforce, there is little incentive to do that

There are two sides to this argument - automated processes not taking days off sick or from unreliable repeat performance are well-known and it is easy to assume that robots perform the same operations as humans while adding little value, being costlier and less easy to manage. However there often remain very sound reasons for automating manual or semi-automated operations.

Automation does not necessarily herald major job cuts. Quite apart from anything else, a robotic installation is likely to increase productivity, creating opportunities for the existing operators to be transferred to another portion of the line.

While we have hopefully busted the more commonplace myths surrounding robotics and, potentially ignited some encouragement, now is as good a time as any to look at introducing robotics into your manufacturing unit – especially if you want to utilise your half million pound AIA before it disappears! It is important that you sit down with your integrator and put them in the spotlight. Ask for examples of projects that are aligned to yours, scope out some of the costs and put them in the driving seat.

They should be able to provide plenty of examples to demonstrate that not one of these assumptions is correct.

Paul Wilkinson is Business Development Manager, Pacepacker, Braintree, Essex, UK. 

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