While industrial robot deployment in dairy — and food and beverage processing in general — has been slower than in other nonperishable sectors, recent developments are leading to greater opportunities for manufacturers to benefit from robot automation.

Historically, the majority of industrial robot deployments have been articulated robots for the automotive industry. As recently as 2012, almost half of all industrial robots sold globally went into the automotive sector, according to “Industrial Robot Opportunities in Food and Beverage Processing,” a new white paper from PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. However, as robot costs have come down, performance and dexterity have improved while manufacturing wage costs have continued to increase. That means the time is ripe for dairy processors to accelerate implementation.

Previously, industrial robots were a nonstarter for many applications in dairy due to strict health and safety regulations, coupled with robots not meeting the necessary standards for use in direct contact with food. But manufacturers are increasingly developing robots with a high protection class suitable for handling unpacked goods and subsequent washdown, creating new opportunities for the direct and indirect handling of foods. 

Industrial robots offer an advantage over humans in that they don’t get distracted, lose attention, get tired, go on holidays or get sick. Along with other technologies such as vision systems, they can process information at a higher rate and can be set up to operate at far higher throughput levels than those of human workers. As well as offering improved speed, robots provide a higher degree of accuracy and repeatability, improving production rates while reducing downtime and waste.

As gripper and end-of-arm technologies develop, the ability of robots to handle fragile products and reduce damage has improved significantly. As this technology continues to grow, becoming both gentler and more consistent, potential applications will broaden from traditional robust tasks, making robots the preferred option to human handling.

In addition, the integration of vision systems, along with rapid developments in artificial intelligence and deep learning, is creating opportunities to improve the automation of product quality control. Cameras can be used to monitor attributes such as size, shape, color, etc., and use this information to identify deviation from acceptable parameters.

With the ability to work in dirty environments, robots are another technology that can protect workers from more dangerous conditions. While automation and safety equipment has already helped significantly in reducing workplace injuries, robots that work with potentially hazardous cutting- and pressing-type machines, as well as in environments where harsh chemicals are present, can also be used to reduce risks to workers.

On the opposite side of the table, robotics manufacturers see the food-based industries as markets to target because of their greater immunity to economic uncertainty. Regardless of the economy, people need to eat, making food an area less influenced by cyclical swings in demand.

To see the latest in dairy industry automation solutions — and other dairy solutions — you’ll want to attend ProFood Tech, which will take place March 26-28, 2019, at McCormick Place in Chicago. Produced by PACK EXPO, Koelnmesse (organizer of Anuga) and the International Dairy Foods Association, the three-day event will welcome 7,000 processing professionals, showcasing crossover technologies and innovative solutions from 400 exhibitors over 125,000 net square feet of exhibit space. For more information and to register, visit profoodtech.com.