Robots can be used for a wide range of food products, including products that require gentle handling.

Robots get a grip on food and drink

by the Robotic Industries Association

Robotic systems are used extensively for handling bags, flow packing and packaging multi-component products like meal kits. It is common to see robots in palletizing and depalletizing operations, and the ability to store many program variations allows users to have multiple mixed pallet specifications for their customers. In the food and beverage industry, those who most efficiently pack and ship specialty orders win.

Robot makers have responded with new products and approaches that are flexible and take the hassle out of specialty orders. The trend is so pronounced in food and beverage packaging that it is one of the top five growth areas for robotics according industry statistics from the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). Orders in this sector, which includes consumer goods, increased 41% through the first three quarters of 2010. Full year statistics are available from RIA.

“Retailers especially like to differentiate themselves by offering unique combinations of goods on their shelves,” said Brian Huse, the RIA’s director of marketing and public relations. “Volumes may rise and fall seasonally, further complicating matters. Robots are designed specifically to handle variations in product and volume.”

Robots are usually more affordable and use less space than fixed automation. Plus, their deployment helps eliminate repetitive motion injuries for tasks other automation can’t handle. Return on investment can often be measured in months, and unlike most dedicated machines, robots can adapt easily when the product changes.

“Now we see new tooling that allows a robot to change gripper size on the fly, and many innovations in man-machine interfaces to make the robots easier to program and operate,” Huse says.

Safety concerns have driven some of the advancements in robot design. Robot makers are now producing robots that have the control reliability needed to eliminate some physical barriers. This means work cell setup is less complicated and less expensive.

“A new national robot safety standard is in the pipeline, and some robot makers already have products that comply,” Huse says. “Customers will benefit from cost savings and more flexibility.”

Workplace safety is always important, but sometimes people worry more about the effect robots have on jobs. With an economy still tainted by high unemployment, why should the food industry invest in robotics?

When labor is cheap and there is no concern about staff turnover a robot may not make sense, but improvements in safety and sanitation often help offset those issues. For that matter, it is quite common to hear that employees are shifted to better jobs (running or maintaining robots, for instance). More importantly, better efficiency and quality (hallmarks of robot systems) create a competitive advantage that can be leveraged into more business. More customers can lead to steady or increased staffing.

“Food and beverage applications will continue to grow at a dramatic pace,” says Dean Elkins, RIA chairman and senior general manager of Motoman Robotics. “Also, case packing and palletizing will shine.” He predicts China, India, Brazil and South America as hot spots for more robot sales-places not traditionally known for labor shortages or high wages.

In any country, employee turnover is one factor that helps drive demand for robots. However, robots can handle large loads without physical injury; robots don’t tire or call in sick, and they are used often to increase production at the end of the line.

Furthermore, the cost of injured workers in America can be very high, and robots help minimize that by taking on the heavy lifting of pallets or large, heavy, awkward items. People don’t do so well in damp, cold environments like freezers, so that is another great place for robots.

Best of all, robots are good at handling custom orders and different pallet configurations, plus there are many choices in tooling that allow companies to respond quickly when a customer changes an order.

Fundamentals and more advanced concepts about robotics will be examined at the Automate Conference, March 21-24, 2011, at Chicago’s McCormick Place. Held biannually, Automate is co-located with ProMat, sponsored by the Material Handling Industry of America, which is North America’s premier material handling and logistics show.

Three associations sponsor Automate 2011: Robotic Industries Association, Automated Imaging Association and Motion Control Association. To learn more about the show, F&BP

Automate 2011 to showcase the best of robots

Automate 2011, to be held March 21-24 at Chicago’s McCormick Place, is the premier trade show for robotics and automation in a range of industries, including packaging.

Formerly known as the International Robots, Vision & Motion Control Show, Automate 2011 will feature the latest in robotics, vision and automation technologies. It is expected to draw some 35,000 visitors.

The show is being sponsored by the Automation Technologies Council, an umbrella group for the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), the Automated Imaging Association (AIA) and the Motion Control Association (MCA).

“Right at the front of our show we’ll feature a pavilion of leading system integrators who will demonstrate solutions for a wide-range of industries. This is a major change in our show layout-we want visitors to see solutions first,” says Jeffrey Burnstein, president of the Automation Technologies Council. “Then, once our visitors see how everything works together, they can search the show for leading companies, new products, and importantly, industry expertise to help them develop solutions that meet their specific needs.”

This year’s show represents a couple of firsts. It’s the first appearance at McCormick Place; it had been held in a smaller venue in Rosemont, Ill. And it will be the first time the show has been held in conjunction with ProMat, a show for the material handling industry and logistics industry sponsored by Material Handling Industry of America (MHIA).

For more information about Automate 2011, call 734-994-6088 or

Getting 'InSight' into robotics

An interview with Rick Roszkowski senior director of marketing, Cognex Corp.

Q: What is InSight, and how is it used in robotics?

A: The InSight product line is a general-purpose machine vision system. It is often used in robotics for basic alignments, or guidance, where the camera would be taught to look for a particular object and we would identify the location of the object to the robot, so the robot could pick it up. Or, additionally, we may provide a destination location, a target, and direct the robot where to place it.

Q: How is this helpful?

A: If you have a packaging line, fewer and fewer companies are building rigid fixtures on their conveyor lines to get things properly oriented. Instead, they’re allowing the robot to identify where it is through the use of a vision camera to then pick that up and place it in a case, using vision to direct [the robot’s] movements.

Q: Why is Cognex a good “partner” for a robotics application?

A: Cognex has a long history in vision tools specifically geared for pattern recognition. Our mainstream vision [software] tool is called Patmax. It is extremely capable in terms of dealing with the natural variations that may occur when trying to recognize a product. So for example, it can deal with 360-degree rotation in a very timely way, it can deal with other things, occlusions, noise in the background. Patmax has the ability to wade through all the ambient features of the image to identify the product and precisely locate it.

Q: Can the InSight serve other functions while it guides the robot arm?

A: Absolutely. In many cases, where locating a product was the primary objective, we’re seeing a trend where more customers are adding in the inspection capability to identify the product, see if the label’s in the right spot, or track it by reading the bar code.