Article appeared in issue 3, 2021

Automation upgrade

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Automation is more important than ever for Irish food businesses

Until recently, to automate a food manufacturing process with robots, the only option was industrial robots writes David Leydon, head of food and agribusiness with ifac.

Industrial robots are what most people think of when they imagine robots; big, heavy and expensive. Industrial robots evolved to satisfy the needs of high-volume production, like those found in the automotive and aerospace industries.

While industrial robots continue to be extremely important in certain sectors, over the past decade or so, another type of robot has disrupted the status quo. Collaborative robots (cobots) are changing the world of automation and are ideal for food businesses.

Automaton, cobots and robotics in general, are helping many food businesses to solve staffing shortages, increase productivity, improve product quality and to future-proof their business.

These recent advances in technology mean that robotic automation is no longer the preserve of the large corporates. As automation becomes more accessible, we are starting to see it play a greater role in many lean projects, while also having the potential to impact an organisation’s green agenda.

Some of the key drivers for automation in the food sector include:

  • A desire to increase competitiveness and position your business for future success;

  • A need to reduce operating costs;

  • Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) Audits highlighting a need to improve working conditions and employee safety;

  • Pressure to maximise production speeds;

  • Opportunities to improve the quality of finished products;

  • Desire to build a more sustainable, greener future;

  • An aspiration for workers to do more valuable tasks and mitigate against staff shortages;

  • Automation is now more accessible, more cost effective and less complicated than in the past.

 

Robotic applications in food businesses

The ideal task for a robot has two elements:

Highly predictable: the task is the same every time, with few deviations.

Repeatable: the task will be performed repeatedly.

Some of the most common applications of automation for Irish food businesses include:

Palletising: Loading products onto pallets from the end of a production line is ideal for robots. This is probably the most common use for robots in the food industry right now and one of the easiest to implement. A perfect example of a repeatable and predictable job for a robot to do 24/7.

Inspection: End of line product inspection and quality checks including barcode verification. Robots can do this task continuously, error-free and much faster than one of your team.

Packaging: Lifting and transferring products and placing them into packaging. Advancements in gripper technology means that robots can now handle delicate items damage free. Advancements in gripper technology also offer cutting-edge solutions that will build your business and improve the expected Return on Investment (ROI). Increased throughput, decreased product damage and reduced downtime are benefits that can be expected when handling produce, bakery and protein items with food safe gripping systems.

Tray Handling: The stacking of trays on the end of a line or the feeding of trays into a washer is a monotonous and repeatable process that can be easily automated. A robot can be programmed to pick from racks or stack into racks, freeing up your team to engage in greater value-added activities.

Return on Investment

Return on Investment (ROI) is an important aspect to calculate when deciding if a robotic system is worth an investment. Typically, a good payback period from an automation project will be a under 2.5 years. Investing in a robotic system instead of using manual labour can help the business to improve efficiency, with a robotic system usually able to run at 90 to 95% efficiency, make fewer mistakes, especially when performing monotonous and boring repetitive tasks and minimise the risk of human injury through RSI, back injuries and so on.

Most importantly, it enables the business to redeploy their team to higher value work by automating the most repeatable and predictable tasks occurring in the business.

 

Funding your automation journey

There are several options to review when considering the best way to fund an automation investment in your business. Every business will have their own specific needs and will have varying ability in terms of repayment capacity and eligibility for state aid for example.

For Enterprise Ireland (EI) clients, there are a range of supports available including the Operational Excellence Offer. This support has been designed to help companies address the competitive challenges they are facing through funding transformation projects that can include investing in the implementation of new and innovative production methods. Sample projects outlined by Enterprise Ireland include production line redesign, and process restructuring. The levels of support vary from 10% – 70% depending on the project.

Another fund worth investigating is the Capital Investment Initiative. This initiative supports EI client companies in investing in new equipment and technology to improve productivity and overall competitiveness. The level of financial support available is up to a maximum of €250,000 per company.

For Local Enterprise Office clients, the Business Expansion Grant should be able to help you fund part of your automation investment. From a banking perspective, asset finance can assist in the purchase and the repayment of the cost of the asset over its useful life, typically three to five years. Asset finance can be used for new and used assets while repayments can be appropriately matched to the seasonal cashflow of the business.

 

Conclusion

Low margins in the Irish food sector are a challenge. We believe that automation is critical to enhancing the competitiveness of Irish food businesses. Robotics, and specifically cobots, have a role to play as businesses look to manage the impacts of Covid-19, Brexit, lean projects and the sustainability agenda within organisations.

For some businesses, automation might be getting your first cobot on the factory floor, and making sure to maximise state supports along the way. For others, automation will be centre stage at senior decision-making level as the drive for efficiency continues.

For all food business managers, the only real cost is the time needed to explore and assess the new automation opportunities that now exist for Irish food businesses. We would highly recommend that you invest this time wisely and explore the role of automation for your business as you prepare for the future.

 

Ifac recently published a report on Automation for Irish Food and AgriBusinesses in collaboration with Reliance Automation. Read the full report here: www.ifac.ie/downloads