Food for thought

10 June 2015

Chris Sumner, managing director of Fanuc UK, outlines how the fresh produce segment can enhance quality and deploy automation safely.

To meet the tight deadlines required by supermarkets and retailers, it’s critical that a fast, high production through rate is achieved. For the fresh produce sector in particular, this raises issues of quality and the need to minimise damage throughout the production process.

In fresh food production, there are two aspects to the safety argument. Maintaining product integrity is one, ensuring the quality expectations for end consumers are met. Suppliers can be hit by fairly hefty penalties if damaged produce hits retail shelves. It is not unheard of for chains to impose fines of up to £85 each time it receives a product customer complaint. And it’s the supplier that ends up paying. On the production side, workforce accidents carry substantial financial and reputational implications. Suppliers have a duty to protect their workforce.

Automating a line is the ideal solution. As well as increasing efficiency and reducing overheads, you also remove human error hazards and consequently the risk of product damage. Workforce injuries caused by performing arduous and often repetitive tasks, often within inhospitable cold environments, is another common issue that robots help to eliminate.

Robots excel at repeatability and speed and work tirelessly without hesitation. All good for product safety. This is part of the reason why we are seeing an automation food frenzy. Washdown robots are rising to the occasion and with systems now a lot more affordable, the upsurge in adoption looks set to continue.

When introducing robotics onto your line there needs to be a level of respect and caution adopted, especially among the workforce inhabiting the same space. Robots can produce powerful and rapid movements through a large operational space, and the path of a robot and/or its arm can be difficult for a human to accurately predict. Most robot related accidents occur during non-routine operating conditions. For example, when an operator temporarily enters the robot’s working envelope to complete programming, maintenance, testing, setup, or adjustment tasks. Educating operatives is fundamental to safeguarding your workforce.


Selecting the safest solution

Combining efficiency with safety is about selecting the right robot to suit a specific project. Some food produce may be more fragile than others and often size variations occur. Rarely will a broad brush approach apply. Take moving punnets of strawberries from A to B and then putting them into retail trays. Fast robotic movements that may be perfectly fine for bags of spuds can cause damage to soft berries, so by the time they’re in the tray, juice is already collecting at the packaging base, causing the product to spoil, or dripping out and causing a slip hazard.

Control not caged

Previously automation hazards in this type of manufacturing environment might have been caged. Now they are controlled. Software plays a huge role in these recent advancements. Simulation software, like Fanuc UK's Roboguide can be used to model all of the variable robotic movements, obstacles and potential collision scenarios, before build. You can introduce a safety related control system (SRCS), many of which can be embedded into the controller rather than having external fixtures. You can programme the robot speeds, monitor the position and enable and disable workspace zones that a robot can or cannot enter.

Let’s not forget vision. The introduction of high speed, high resolution cameras, such as iRVision, enable a robot to distinguish between products and 'know' which to go for on the line and where it should place it. This plug and play system can also help with product tracking and traceability, and can even spot and remove imperfect products.

Hygiene is one more factor to consider. Robots don’t have to be reminded to wash their hands, or cover their mouths when they sneeze. And with full washdown kit now available, including two new FANUC IP69K certified models, cleaning with a high pressure hose is possible, eliminating another time intensive disassembly process.

When it comes to safety, food grade robots are rising to the occasion. Upstream and downstream processes across the country are being automated and helping suppliers to maintain a low cost of production, maintain a consistent production capacity, improve overall product quality and, in many instances, improve safety as well.