The third part in a three-part series with Staubli Robotics on how robotics is affecting the food processing industry.
Acuity: What obstacles do you see for a broader acceptance of robots in food processing?
Stäubli: Acceptance is growing among food companies. We saw record-breaking sales in food the last couple years, and we expect this trend to keep gaining momentum. I honestly do not see any obstacles, and this forecast is shared by many in the food industry. The people who left their harsh and manual jobs are not coming back. Protein processing plants, for instance, will keep struggling to find workers despite higher hourly wages and compensation. In addition, our societies push for more food safety, traceability, and predictability. All three of these expectations pave the way for more automation and robotics inside the food processing plants of today and tomorrow. All we have to do is keep educating and supporting food producers to ensure their success in the adoption of robotics.
Acuity: What is the robotics industry doing to help food processors overcome reluctance to move robot technology on to the processing floor?
Stäubli: As mentioned, the key now is educating food producers. It is still not common knowledge among this crowd that robots can be an efficient and durable solution for many applications. When we sit down with people, we share references and case studies that back this argument. Once people see that a similar challenge has already been resolved somewhere else using our robots, then the project moves forward very fast. That is the strength of having over two decades of expertise in food applications. It is what sets up apart and makes us the leader for food contact robotic applications worldwide.
Acuity: What’s next for robots in the food processing industry?
Stäubli: In addition to the increase of the robotics density in the primary environment of food production plants, there are new segments related to the food industry that emerge. Food-service and agricultural industries are two examples. Both share common adoption factors with food processors, such as labor issues, but also similar requirements like the hygienic design and resistance to the environment. We will soon see robots outside industrial plants—in the fast-food restaurants of our cities and in the fields of our country sides.
Acuity: How are robots helping food processors stay competitive?
Stäubli: First, robotic automation increases productivity. They are faster than human operators and can work consistently for longer periods. Robots are also flexible and able to adapt to quick recipe changes or running several SKUs. As a result, they can increase the OEE and production volumes.
Second, robotic systems are sound investments. They are affordable and in situations like today, with higher labor costs, they can offer a swift ROI. This is even more true when food producers are suffering from not having enough workers or if many of them do not show up consistently. Robots are predictable—they show up to work every day and keep the lines running. Beyond the notion of ROI, the question many plant managers face today is how much it costs them to have production lines shut down due to labor issues.
We have seen many instances where production plants in western countries were able to maintain their operations thanks to the implementation of systems using our solutions. Robots play a key role in the “on-shoring” phenomenon that was recently covered in the news, as they make it possible for local businesses to compete with lower-wages countries. Far from replacing people, robotic automation enables factories to stay local and give workers access to higher-value, more gratifying, and safer jobs.