The first part in a three-part series with Staubli Robotics on how robotics is affecting the food processing industry.
Acuity: We see robots everywhere in manufacturing—like welding, assembling, etc.—but not so much in food processing. Why do you think that is?
Stäubli: Robotics is indeed very common in automotive plants and has been for many years. As an illustration, Unimation, which later became part of Staubli Robotics, installed the first robots at GM in the USA in the 1980s. Those years can be considered the dawn of robotic automation.
For the food processing industry, the implementation and use of robots is a relatively new phenomenon. The main obstacle was the environment in which robots need to work. Food processing plants, especially protein and dairy, perform regular and extreme wash-down processes that require the equipment to be protected from the water and resist the corrosiveness of the cleaning chemicals used. These procedures and environmental constraints require robots that are fully enclosed and will last over time. We developed our first hygienic environment (HE) robots in the early 2000’s and are now working on the 4th generation, but for many robotic manufacturers these design standards are still impossible to meet.
We cannot leave the labor factor out of this equation. European food processors were inclined to integrate robots in their processing plants sooner than in North America since labor costs were higher there. Today, we see the same trend with the American workforce compounded by the COVID crisis, which truly accelerated an already growing demand. Food processing jobs are harder to fill than ever and at a much higher cost.
Acuity: You mentioned that food environment has some very tough regulatory requirements (food safety) as well as environmental challenges (cold storage, freezer, or even hot and humid areas). How are robots built to be able to adapt to those requirements and environments?
Stäubli: As we just discussed, the robots need to present specific characteristics regarding the humid environment and wash-down processes. The arms need to be fully enclosed with specially designed castings that present no retention areas. The cables need to be inside and through the base while the surface of the arms needs to be covered by coatings that will resist the widest pH ranges and not chip over time. Special seals and a pressurization kit need to be used to protect the mechanics from the outside moisture. Crucial components need to be made from stainless steel. To be compatible with food-contact applications, robots must use H1 food-grade oil.
Regarding temperatures, our robots do not use any grease except oil, and we only use our own patented JCS gearboxes on all the joints of all our arms (four and six axis). Our HE robot line uses a specific H1 food-grade oil without any loss of performance (vs. our standard oil), even in the freezing temperatures that some processes may require.
But the real complexity results from the fact that the food industry requires not only humidity-resistant robotic arms but hygienically designed arms to ensure food safety. This crucial layer of complexity added on top of the environment criteria is the reason we present our robots as hygienic environment (HE) robots. From over 20 years of development and successes in the food environment, Staubli was able to develop specific and smoother robot envelopes (castings) designed to prevent liquid retention areas, which are prone to the proliferation of bacteria. This characteristic ensures the drainage of all liquids from the top to the base of the robots, therefore improving food safety. The absence of external cables adds to this hygienic design.
It is the true and tested ability to combine both environmental and hygiene/safety characteristics that makes our robots the right solution for food processing applications.
Acuity: Why do you feel food processors are so reluctant to utilize robotics on the shop floor, as I do see robots in their warehouse and packaging areas?
Stäubli: I believe it is mostly due to a lack of awareness. When we talk to food plant managers or engineers, many are not aware that we have been offering hygienic food robots for quite some time. There is a big educational role to play for Staubli Robotics and all the automation actors involved around the food industry. Although palletizing robots can be found inside the secondary environment areas of a lot of food plants, robots are not a familiar sight in the primary environment and for applications other than handling packaged food. There is an understandable fear of the unknown.
We need to educate people about the hardware and software made available to them by companies such as ours. Nowadays, robots can perform in nearly any area of their food plant and can perform almost any task. Control and programming are also a lot easier today than they were in the 80s. For instance, our robots can be programmed and controlled from the more familiar PLC environment, which can help make food plants more comfortable in some cases.
Things are starting to evolve, but it will take a few more years in my opinion until we reach a level of awareness and acceptance comparable to the automotive or pharmaceutical industry.