Automation: Robotic Solutions for Efficiency and Labor

On March 15, members of BEMA and IBIE gathered on the first day of the iba Connecting Experts event to talk about robotics in food production facilities. While robotics in the manufacturing space is not a new concept, bakery manufacturers are seeing more reasons for automation in an effort to meet workforce shortages, reduce labor on production lines, comply with social distancing measures, and create fewer product touches from production.

Moderated by Kerwin Brown, President and CEO of BEMA, the panel of automation experts included Craig Souser, JLS Automation; Rick Hoskins, Colborne Foodbotics and Yeaman Machine Technologies; and John Keane, AMF Bakery Systems.

Automation: Robotic Solutions for Efficiency and Labor

Progressive Role of Robotics and Automation

The many and varied impacts of COVID have brought home that although restrictions may be relaxing, some level of risk remains. When factoring risk into traditional ROI, many bakery manufacturers are finding new levels of risk are increasing the desire for automation. Rising automation could also hold the potential to get an handle on the growing skills gap and help hiring managers better compete as they vie against warehousing distribution centers for the same pool of job candidates.

Increasing Need

John sees the need for technology advancement right around the corner as manufacturers must find new ways to be flexible as a result of shifting consumer demands. Considering ongoing calls for more product and packaging variety, manufacturers need the flexibility to adapt lines to handle flavor and packaging changes while keeping new sanitation and social distancing guidelines in mind.

This includes rising requests for more hygienic equipment with robotic designs focused on pick-and-place handling of bare products. While there may be some current gaps in what robots can do, Rick predicts this to be an area of growth over the next few years.

Multi-access Robots and Co-bots

In the near future, next level robots could more accurately replicate the human touch. Current visioning advancements in the technology allow for more detailed quality control using color, automation and 3D. Co-bots, which can interface near or with a human, also offer potential for great changes, but throughput remains an issue. Because these bots handle many parts per minute, it’s important to avoid creating a situation where someone could be injured.

“With co-bots, collaborative needs to be part of the conversation and we need to know if our collaborative definition is the same,” John said. “Collaborative meaning a robotic solution that sits in the same place as a human at a faster, more accurate rate that can be deployed up and down the line, just like a human would be.”

Greater Use

As robotics become easier to use they will become more attractive to the industry, Craig shared. This includes alleviating concerns regarding the availability of a skilled technician to handle issues with the robotics. Through the use of augmented reality and MS HoloLens, JLS Automation is able to get a tech to the machine virtually in real time in a high-quality audio and visual setting.

To further lessen fears of implementation, Rick recommended looking at the addition of robotics from a component aspect with many current engineering employees becoming robot experts through the training programs of the robotic companies.

Here to Stay

With continuing changes at work, robotics could help the industry solve a number of issues. As robotics become more of the norm, companies who do not consider robotic solutions may find themselves at a loss when they no longer have the hard automation options available to them, John cautioned.

“Robots are here to stay,” Craig concluded. “Start by evaluating some applications on the low-hanging fruit, implement and move on. The only way to replace labor is to replace labor.”

About iba Connecting Experts

Taking place March 15-17, the iba Connecting Experts lecture series offers baking industry professionals and their suppliers a global business platform. The three-day kickoff event offers opportunity for connection, discovery, learning and entertainment and will be followed by a subsequent on-site round of business when iba opens its doors live in Munich on Oct. 2021.

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