A Robotic Solution for Labor Shortages in Food & Beverage
A major challenge in the food & beverage industry is the shortage of qualified workers, especially as food processing equipment becomes more complex and seasoned workers retire. This situation has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced companies to deal with additional workforce shortages because of illness, self-isolation, and social distancing. In some F&B sectors, coronavirus outbreaks linked to production facilities forced full or partial shutdowns. Most food processing jobs cannot be done remotely; workers must be in the plant. However, safety protocols have reduced employee numbers on site, making it harder for companies to stay efficient and maintain production levels.
The 2020 State of Food Manufacturing Survey Report from Food Engineering reported that almost 25% of F&B processors experienced workforce decreases compared to the previous year. Further, “the pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities of an industry historically reliant on manual labor,” comments Resilience 360, a predictive analytics firm, in an October 2020 report.
To meet these labor challenges, F&B companies are investing in robotics and automation to counter the impacts of worker shortages and keep production lines running. Food Engineering indicates that 22% of processors plan to invest more in automation and robotics to meet new safety requirements and staffing challenges.
One of the greatest needs in F&B is for collaborative robots. These robots are becoming more multifunctional, with greater ranges of motion, and can interact safely with human workers. Robots can lessen the impacts of social distancing by replacing missing workers on the line.
Cobots, as they are often called, can work 24/7 without breaks. The number of cobots, and their speed, can be adjusted to maintain production needs as employment levels fluctuate. They are easy to program and can work safely side-by-side with humans on even very delicate processes, thanks to their advanced vision systems and wide range of plug-and-play grippers for picking and sorting small or irregularly shaped objects.
The demand for collaborative robots is estimated to grow 17% per year, nearly double the rate for conventional robots, according to robot manufacturer ABB. The company’s SWIFTI cobot, which costs about $30,000, can safely move its arm at up to 15 feet per second while carrying a load of about 10 pounds. These cobots are ideal for smaller F&B companies that have never had robots before because they were considered unaffordable or had never been evaluated as a viable labor solution.
Contrary to what many people believe about robots taking jobs away from workers, “I see our customers actually increasing their hiring,” says Sami Atiya, head of ABB’s robotics and discrete automation business. “The companies get more productive and have more work to do, so people will do more rewarding and creative work while the robots do the dirty and dull jobs.”
Artificial Intelligence (AI) Leads the Way
AI adds value to robots as a worker substitute since robots learn from the process data they are recording and adjust their work to be more efficient and productive.
“There is an ongoing need for automation, and specifically artificial intelligence, to help limit human exposure to infections and to enhance overall worker safety, speed, and predictability,” says Tyler Cundiff, president, Food & Beverage Group, Gray, Inc.
These and other safety precautions are needed to keep workers safe in facilities where social distancing can be a challenge to implement. “We’re seeing food companies currently engaged in projects to redesign and retrofit existing employee welfare areas to be more accommodating for social distancing, cleaning, and personal hygiene protocols resulting from COVID-19 regulations and countermeasures,” adds Stephen Gray, president and CEO of Gray, Inc.
Sensor technologies, AI, and machine-to-machine communications are advancing robotic capabilities, especially in packaging. Robots can also be hygienic enough to touch foodstuffs directly. For example, KUKA’s KR AGILUS robot has corrosion-resistant surfaces, food-compatible lubricants, and stainless-steel parts to ensure the highest level of hygiene in sorting, palletizing, and packing applications. Its small size makes it easy to move around the plant to fill in for absent workers.
“It is important to keep people socially distanced and keep robots doing the work to maintain food and worker safety,” says Austin Harvey, director of product management for Soft Robotics, which makes an AI platform that enables remote picking using a virtual interface. “Our solutions allow humans to maintain distance by enabling fewer people per shift, which helps keep infections down in the plant.”
Robotic Workers in the Future
The success of using robots in response to COVID has F&B leaders looking at other ways automation, robots, and AI can be used to enhance other important activities in the plant that are dependent on human operators.
“Any critical activity where manufacturers are reliant on operators alone to complete a task is up for review as manufacturers have had to cope with reduced headcount either through absences or social distancing to protect those on-site throughout the pandemic,” says Jake Norman, head of sales and innovation at machine supplier OAL. “Robotic and automated solutions for the packaging line are widespread, but it is operations upstream that offer the greatest opportunity for savings, safety, and increased productivity.”
Even though AI and robots have replaced some jobs, they will not eliminate human workers.
“Technology will allow workers to be more productive, but it won’t replace them,” says Ryan Chan, founder and CEO at UpKeep, a provider of manufacturing software. “Smarter tech will require fewer field workers, but more workers will be needed to understand the data. The low-skill, monotonous jobs will go away, leaving more complex tasks for workers.”
The reliance on robotics is expected to continue, even after the pandemic settles down.
“Over the long-term, companies will introduce more automation and robotics technology into their supply chain to address labor shortages to mitigate the impact of future crises,” adds Jena Santoro, supply chain risk intelligence manager for Resilience360.