UK Manufacturers Turning to Industrial Robots
There has been a 60% increase in robotics adoption by UK food manufacturers in 2013, according to a new report.
By Shaun Weston, FoodBev.com - Filed Mar 06, 2014

The adoption of robotics over the last 10 years has rapidly increased in sectors where fast and accurate assembly has been a top priority, say new figures from the British Automation and Robotics Association.

The Association (BARA) also points to a recent acceleration in the deployment of robotics by UK food manufacturers, revealing a 60% increase in food sector adoption in 2013 compared to 2000.

Reviewing the global industrial robot sales picture across all sectors, the president of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), Dr Shinsuke Sakakibara, has expressed his optimism for upcoming growth.

"The robotics industry is looking into a bright future," he said. "The IFR Statistical Department expects that between 2014 and 2016, worldwide robot sales will increase by about 6% on average per year. In 2016, the annual supply of industrial robots will reach more than 190,000 units."

Just 10 years ago, global sales figures were hovering around 80,000. Industry experts attribute the recent boom to three key factors: factory modernisation, increases in production capacity, and rising demand from a number of emerging markets.

"The latest IFR World Robotics Industrial Robots 2013 Report illustrates that Europe is still lagging behind Asia, where sales of robots were more than double Europe's 2012 figure of 41,200," said Grant Collier at BARA. "Japan alone sold more than 28,700 units in 2012."

Across all sectors in the UK, the number of robot transactions in 2012 grew to 2,305.

Stimulating UK interest in automation

Engagement in robotics and momentum really began to pick up in 2010, when members of the Engineering and Machinery Alliance (EAMA), with support from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), commissioned an industry study.

Having polled a broad spectrum of manufacturers in Spain, Germany, Sweden and the UK, the study concluded that the main reasons for UK manufacturers' investment reluctance in modern manufacturing technologies linked to lack of knowledge, skills and confidence.

Responding to these recommendations, the British government initiated the Automating Manufacturing Programme. It put £600k on the table, giving BARA the funds to engage with UK manufacturers and provide impartial advice on the implementation of automation solutions.

The programme ran for 18 months, attracting the interest of 366 companies, who took up the free operational audit followed by implementation support. Approximately 40% of those came from the food sector. BARA's 2013 sales statistics now reveals a 60% uplift of robotic adoption in the food industry, indicating that confidence is at an all-time high.

"While high-speed, accurate and agile systems are all key benefits of a pick-and-place robot, the most recent demands from producers relate to food safety and the use of robots to improve hygiene during the manufacturing process," said Fanuc UK managing director Chris Sumner. "Although IP67K-certified robots have been commonplace for many years, the very nature of a robot arm, with its many crevices and less durable construction materials, has in the past prevented it from working in harsh food environments."

Fanuc is one of the few suppliers in the marketplace that has an IP69K-certified system. Its new M-2iA delta-style assembly robot is capable of operating in high-pressure, high-temperature washdown environments, meeting individual Retailer Codes of Practice (COP) and the latest hygiene and product line integrity requirements set out by the British Retail Consortium.

These days, robotic food systems are faster, more compact and affordable. They have brains (often referred to as controllers) that can manage up to four robot arms from a single CPU, to improve production efficiencies. Some also have vision systems, which food manufacturers are realising is of great benefit, as the robot can mirror the hand/eye coordination of a human and accurately pick random products off a moving conveyor, reducing waste and leading to higher production efficiencies.

"Retraining staff to operate robots not only increases a worker's skill set, it creates renewed vigour," said Chris Sumner. "It certainly provides a greater sense of job satisfaction compared to completing the same task manually."

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