Safely automating food and beverage applications
July 11, 2019 – Food and beverage is one of the fastest-changing industries in business today.
Consumers are demanding products that can be more difficult to process, and companies need to respond with safe, quality goods that are not going to put off the buyer in terms of price. To stay ahead of their competition and contribute to the bottom line, companies must remain flexible and diligent in making sure their facility is clean in order to ensure food safety.
A key driver for many manufacturers looking at robotic solutions is economics. Because the unemployment rate has dropped significantly, particularly in the area of general labour, and the minimum wage has increased, it is difficult to meet the demand for people. Robots can fill the gap. In addition, cleaning duties on a food line tend to be the toughest positions to fill and keep filled, so robots can solve that issue as well.
Robots are becoming more and more integrated in processing applications in order to save time and space, as well as to improve cleanliness and safety. As government regulations become more stringent and competition intensifies, the need for robots is increased in the food and beverage industry. For example, the Safe Food for Canadians Regulations (SFCR) came into effect on January 15, 2019, requiring, among other things, developing, implementing, and maintaining a written preventive control plan that documents how food businesses meet food safety, humane treatment and consumer protection requirements. Robots can also increase operational efficiency, throughput and quality, protect employees and the company, and maximize process flexibility.
Good manufacturing practices (GMP) include many basic operational conditions and procedures that are required to be met by food processors. These include the adequate maintenance of equipment and utensils used within the processing business, the use of suitable chemicals within and around the plant including cleaning chemicals, pest control chemicals and machine lubricants, and the cleanliness of the food manufacturing facility, equipment, utensils, floors, walls and ceilings.
Robots, with their small footprint, low cost and high throughput rates, are a valuable addition to this process. By limiting contact with human beings, robots reduce the risk of contamination leading to foodborne illness.
From a food safety perspective, robots can be designed to prevent bacteria, they are easy to clean in high temperatures, and they do not collect dust. That means that they can help prevent food contamination. Robots feature smooth surfaces that are not subject to the harsh corrosive effects of chemicals used to clean the equipment, which is beneficial for use in the food preparation process.
A key application that robots can play a role in is Clean-in-Place (CIP) within the plant processes. Clean-in-Place is a procedure for cleaning interior product manufacturing contact surfaces such as process pipes, vessels and equipment, without disassembly. CIP applications have been around for more than 50 years, and use of a mix of chemicals, heat and water to clean machinery. CIP systems circulate detergent and disinfectant solutions and water through the processing equipment. This ensures consistent and high-quality cleaning of equipment surfaces, which is critical to food safety.
Typical food and beverage applications that are cleaned using an automated CIP system are product transfer lines, processing tanks, homogenizers, mixers, blenders and fillers. The benefit to food and beverage manufacturers that use CIP is that the cleaning is faster, less labour-intensive and more repeatable, and poses less of a chemical exposure risk. In fact, processors can employ a high-speed robotic solution that picks product by day and then self-cleans at night.
As pick and place becomes a more prevalent application for robotics in the food industry, it is important to factor in the safety aspects of this growing trend. Robots do speed up the process of food manufacturing and can be customized to fit specific production requirements. Ideally, they combine the dexterity, flexibility and problem-solving skills of a person, with the strength, endurance and precision of a machine. These robots can safely work on tasks whether or not a human is working nearby.
They also can increase output in the plant, as they don’t need to take breaks and work at a consistent and efficient speed throughout the shift. In addition, in packaging applications, robots can be equipped with intelligent vision systems that allow accurate placement of products on a belt or in a container that ensure consistency and efficiency.
As manufacturers look to automation to make a difference in their business, they should take a hard look at adding robotics to their food and beverage manufacturing operations. Robots provide consistency, they are always available, and they are easily programmed and tooled to provide accuracy, increase quality and keep their products, and their businesses, safe.
Shawn Smith is a business development manager of sales and marketing for the automation and robotics division at JMP Solutions.
This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue of Manufacturing AUTOMATION.
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