Robots are an integral part of today's industrial reality and play an important role in many production processes. Especially food manufacturers have recognized the competitive advantages of automated helpers in recent years and are increasingly investing in solutions such as pick-and-place robots. When it comes to packaging, the goal is to achieve more flexibility and efficiency for production and optimal quality assurance for products.
The megatrend automation has been shaping the industry for years and has gained further momentum during the pandemic. Robots have become an indispensable part of many industries. According to the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the number of industrial robots has more than tripled during the past decade globally. They are also steadily conquering new markets such as the food industry. Here, pick-and-place robots have become a key automation solution and are the fastest-growing robotics segment with a 40% market share.
Experts predict that the market for pick-and-place robots will triple within the next ten years. The reason for this rapid development is obvious: the integration of robotics solutions provides food manufacturers with urgently needed competitive advantages such as delivery reliability, higher productivity, and food safety. Robots are able to achieve these optimizations because they address three trends of this price-sensitive industry at once: flexibility, efficiency, and quality.
Higher flexibility for changing market requirements
The market is more fast-paced than ever; product cycles are becoming increasingly shorter. To remain competitive, manufacturers must introduce a wide variety of products in different packaging styles and sizes to market in ever shorter intervals. These frequent changes increase the pressure during production. Pick-and-place robots are able to increase the required flexibility: to perform a product or format change in the packaging line; it is often already sufficient to change the end-of-arm (EoA) tool of the robot. This means that varying products in different formats can be packaged on one line without long downtimes. Robots with the right EoA tool can handle even delicate products such as cookies, chips, bars, or baked goods. Equipped with a special module that tilts the cartons during loading, the robots can pack products in a flat or upright position, as is the case with the Sigpack TTMD Topload cartoner and the new robotic pick-and-place platform (RPP) from Syntegon.
As demand increases, another advantage of robotics solutions proves its worth: scalability. Food manufacturers can opt for a fully automated packaging line from the outset and use robots to automate their products' feeding, handling, and loading. Alternatively, existing lines can be automated step by step by delegating production tasks one after another to robots. This opens more options, especially for medium-sized companies, to benefit from the new technology. The modular concept of the RPP, for example, allows food manufacturers to add additional robots to their packaging line at a later stage, thus increasing their production output step by step.
Higher efficiency through smart division of tasks
Once pick-and-place robots have been integrated into the packaging line, they work quickly, reliably and without interruptions. Unlike humans, they show no signs of fatigue even after many hours of repetitive work. On the contrary, robots are predestined for monotonous work processes requiring high-speed reliability and precision. The integration of pick-and-place robots makes it possible to relieve employees of tiring tasks, such as loading carton boxes or feeding products to the line by hand. As a result, they can take on more complex processes and tasks such as format changes, cleaning and supervision of the line.
The better manufacturers succeed in optimizing the division of tasks between employees and machines in their production, the greater the benefits. Supported by vision control systems, robots detect defective products during production and eject them immediately. This prevents defective products from reaching the market and causing economic or image damage to the brand. At the same time, robotic solutions improve plannability, as downtimes can be scheduled flexibly. Production capacities are used optimally, especially when producing small batch sizes.
Higher quality with lower contamination risk and faster cleaning
When it comes to quality, robotic solutions offer decisive advantages: they reduce the number of contacts between production staff and products, thus reducing the risk of contamination. Naturally, this risk is particularly high when food items are not yet wrapped into their protective primary packaging. Integrating pick-and-place robots in the handling and feeding areas proves a safe alternative. For example, during the production of sandwich cookies, the robots in the RPP place carefully the top halves of the cookies onto the cream layer of the bottom halves, lift the finished products off the conveyor belt and place them into trays. All this happens with only one point of contact between the product and the machine, the easy-to-clean gripper.
If assortment packs are assembled, the vision system recognizes the different unsorted products on the belt. It makes sure the robots can place them in boxes or trays according to specifications set in the HMI. These processes run automatically once they have been programmed. In addition, the robots detect defective products during production and eject them immediately.
To further reduce the risk of contamination, the robot arms are integrated in stainless steel cells whose surfaces are particularly easy to clean. Unlike painted cells, stainless steel eliminates the risk of paint peeling off and becoming a source of contamination itself. In accordance with the IP65 hygiene standard, the cells of the Syntegon RPP are designed without dead spaces, and surfaces are angled and therefore self-draining providing optimal hygiene.
Towards the factory of the future
Pick-and-place robots have taken on a key role in modern production environments. If manufacturers succeed in efficiently integrating these automated helpers into their new or existing packaging lines, they are equipped to meet the demands of a dynamic food market. Further developments in robotics and automation will continue to provide manufacturers with more competitive advantages in the coming years. Hence, the developers at Syntegon are already following a holistic, UX-based approach to deliver automation solutions that are fit for the automated future.