A global problem needs a futuristic solution

Even before COVID-19, there was a notable increase in the number of food and drink manufacturers looking to safeguard quality and aid productivity by using collaborative robots with vision on their production line. They had raised the bar on innovation, ensuring competitiveness in the marketplace. Usually, however, they would use collaborative robots to work side by side with human workers who would then be reassigned to perform more complex tasks. But now those workers are furloughed, has this period proved that automation can stand in when humans stay home?

COVID-19 has encouraged businesses to use smart technologies across factory floors. Many food and drink manufacturers, for example, are adopting smart factory systems such as robotics, automation and machine learning. To ease fears of transmission, factory floor managers are also making enquiries into increasing the number of automated inspection systems operating side by side with human workers post-lockdown.

For the food & drink industry, an ability to automate the inspection of every product, label, date code, seal, package, and final product quality is now a prerequisite in the modern factory. Latest generation optical inspection machines allow food manufacturers to protect their reputation quickly and efficiently against complaints by presenting customers with 100% inspected products, even on the highest speed lines. With increasing demands from supermarkets for improved quality standards coupled with quality legislation, food manufacturers have turned to automation for their inspection to keep pace in this competitive environment. 

We have been assisting high-speed baked goods producers increase their production quality with our IVA-LAMi-P in-line inspection machines. This equipment allows customers to automate high-speed and critical inspection tasks in real-time. The use of high-definition camera technology coupled with the latest generation machine vision algorithms enables food items to be checked in tandem with the packaging sleeves, label and data codes. With integrated reject chutes, inferior product can be immediately isolated in real-time to stop rejects ending up at the customer site.

Food and drink producers also leverage process control data on their production yields as all production data is stored and immediately transferred to the factory information systems. This provides insights which increase speed, reduce costs and improve quality by drilling down on the specific data which is causing product failures.

Collaborative robots with vision can also play a part in the inspection of more substantial items. For example, robot inspection cells are used to inspect the end of line pallets once all boxes are loaded and labelled onto a single pallet. The robot system can inspect all sides of the pallet to confirm any damage to boxes, check labels and detect rogue parts, offering a final inspection solution for food and drink manufacturers. 

A final growth area is automated bin-picking robots, technology which is becoming more prevalent in food and drink manufacturing. These allow vision robotics to operate autonomously picking products from bins and totes, for example, to load machines, bag products or to produce sub-assemblies. Historically, randomly loaded containers have been tough to pick with standard robots.  The technology is now available to pick from any bin with randomly placed and chaotic products. By removing the people from these operations, this will allow factories to reopen with reduced human-to-human contact, increasing yield and helping to protect the rest of the workforce.

We will see critical changes to working practices and automation deployment, which will create new opportunities across food and drink manufacturing. This includes cutting-edge production ideas with vision robotics and an increasing ability to reduce human-to-human contact with the deployment of autonomous systems. We are also likely to see a growing demand for vision-guided robot systems to maintain production capacity and reduce dependence on the human workforce, which will further drive the adoption of flexible manufacturing for generations to come.

By Earl Yardley, Director at Industrial Vision Systems

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