Editor's Choice

Robot-assisted workflows in the food and beverage industry

Third Quarter 2023 Editor's Choice

Producers are increasingly having to juggle between longer term range proliferation centred on consumer demands, and range reduction caused by the rapidly changing buying habits of retailers and consumers.

This has resulted in them having to be even more agile with existing assets. These assets, in the form of single or connected machines, must therefore be more flexible than ever, meaning they must be supplied with the right material and packaging at the right time. To reduce storage costs and waste, companies need to produce only what is needed for shipping.

Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) and collaborative robots (cobots), and traditional industrial robots, are being used in more and more factories, replacing conveyor belts or accumulation/buffer stations. The challenge is to create a flexible, continuous production process for customer-specific manufacturing and to minimise costly, rigid, and maintenance-intensive conveyor sequences, which usually take up considerable space. Companies that break new ground by using innovative technologies not only gain agility but also reduce scrap, contamination risk, waste and losses.

Future industry trends

The latest Mintel report identified three key food and beverage trends that are likely to take hold by 2030:

• Sustainable nutrition and increasingly informed consumers.

• The growing importance of food science and modern technology in manufacturing. In the future companies will use state-of-the-art tools to bring more product innovations to market, shorten production times, and increase trust in brands.

• Optimisation of factory performance by controlling the flow of goods in the production and storage areas. This is the only way in which companies will be able to meet new retail and consumer demands. They must produce retail-ready items faster and faster, using a high-mix, low-volume approach, with no recalls.

An important question in this context is: How can a project be realised cost-effectively and with a realistic return on investment? A key focus is on smart production and packaging lines that can be easily reconfigured to meet changing market and consumer needs.

Five advantages of automation

The development, construction, and use of such a line require sound knowledge and experience to ensure that the investment can reach its full potential. Therefore, detailed planning, advice from experienced partners, and innovative solutions are key elements for developing an improvement in line performance. They provide the basis for the future-oriented flow of goods and consumables in the factory hall and adjacent storage areas. Anyone who carefully automates machine loading and unloading processes can benefit from the following advantages:

• Employees can be increasingly deployed on value-adding tasks.They are no longer needed for routine tasks, as the machine can do these.

• All work steps can be reliably tracked, stored and analysed.

• Overall equipment efficiency (OEE) is improved by reducing machine stops and optimising availability and performance.

• Companies benefit from faster product changes.

• Production lines can be quickly and easily modified to meet new needs, and require less space than conventional static systems.

The benefits of autonomous mobile robots and cobots

Many companies in the food industry are planning more flexible and seamless production and packaging lines for customer-specific products. This will minimise the need for expensive and inflexible conveyor processes. Easily configurable production lines will ideally consist of collaborative and flexible transport and transfer solutions, tailored to specific production environments.

Examples include robots, AMRs, cobots, and more recently solutions that combine both. Their tasks include the transport of work-in-progress (WIP) stock between sites or adjacent areas, with the process being managed and controlled by a special fleet management solution. Reconfigurable systems in the food industry link assets and reduce costs by storing only what’s needed on the route. Traceability of all stock levels also reduces downtime. At the same time, trip hazards can be decreased, and employees supported.

Minimising errors and strengthening traceability

To avoid production downtimes, line-side replenishment (LSR) must take place in good time, with a focus on the loading of raw materials, packaging of containers, and dispensing of finished goods. Palletisers play a central role in increasing this latter topic, enhancing productivity, flexibility and traceability of the production process. Innovative robotic solutions help to improve throughput in these areas.

Examples are a Selective Compliance Assembly Robot Arm (SCARA) solution for loading bottles or other containers; robots that load cartons and case erectors; and high-speed parallel robot solutions for the orientation and alignment of raw materials and primary/secondary packaged items. Traceability within the process can be ensured via reading and verifying item level and batch level labelling and integrated image processing systems.

Innovative solutions for safe and reliable shipping

The handling and dispatching of goods are also undergoing numerous changes, as retailers want to reduce costs and personnel-related expenses in this area. Food companies face the challenge of picking, placing, and sorting incoming products simultaneously. Careful product handling ensures line throughput, reduces waste, and prevents damaged goods from entering the downstream process.

Delivering retail-ready solutions and avoiding costly fines and recalls can be complicated. Automation can help to protect the product and improve the OEE of a machine or line, by reducing downtime. At the primary product stage, where fast, accurate, repeatable and efficient handling is required, Delta robots are often the solution. Customised software also enhances flow rates and recipe handling. One controller takes care of functions such as motion, vision, safety and robotics.

Product-friendly conveyor control can be achieved by the automatic positioning of the goods on a conveyor. Omron’s Sysmac control platform, for example, features Smart Conveyor Function Blocks (FBs) that control the distances and positioning of products, reducing product damage and improving throughput.

Four top tips for automation projects in the food industry

What should manufacturers in the food industry look for when automating the flow of goods? What pitfalls should be avoided? The following four tips will help you to understand what’s important for streamlined machine loading and unloading processes.

1. Set goals and evaluate processes

Flexibility, quality, labour-related issues and sustainability are just some of the key drivers Omron recognises from speaking to customers. Whatever the driver, any project must have a goal that determines its success.

Automation can be employed to continuously monitor and report on a process, giving a producer real-time access to information on topics such as takt time, downtime, quality performance and idling, to name a few. It can, if properly deployed, be used to monitor at defined stages of a process, enabling bottlenecks to be identified, and incremental changes measured and understood.

2. Involve employees

In the context of the physical flow of goods within a production environment, the protection of the labour force from physical harm is paramount. This same labour force understands the detail of these movements and should be included in discussions about how to improve the process. After all, it’s about automation supporting the workforce.

3. Choose the right partner

It’s important to ensure that a technology partner has a broadly diversified automation portfolio, including a comprehensive range of adaptable solutions for individual challenges. It also makes sense to have a network of system integrators providing expertise and services tailored to the industry at all levels.

4. Consider raw materials, packaging, etc. as a complete package

A plant, production line or machine is only as good as the services it receives in terms of raw materials, packaging and consumables. Companies should not therefore differentiate between machine and line but rather look at improving aspects like replenishing packaging material on the line or minimising WIP to reduce waste, scrap and storage costs. Only by improving the overall process can food and beverage companies optimise labour productivity and significantly increase their line or machine performance.


The automated flow of goods and optimised loading and unloading of machines will play a central role in the food factory of the future. Companies that want to speed up processes, reduce costs and ease the burden on employees can do so with the help of innovative technology and robotics – and thus take a big step towards competitive strength and sustainability.


Share this article:
Share via emailShare via LinkedInPrint this page

Further reading:

WEG partners with Panaco in the DRC
Zest WEG Group Africa Editor's Choice News & events
The strengthened presence of WEG in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), through its strategic alliance with ts value-added reseller (VAR) Panaco, has proved to be highly successful.

Execution of the massive Azmet Reactor project DRC
Editor's Choice News & events
The Azmet Reactor project, a collaborative effort led by Viva Engineering, involved fabricating six massive reactors that were over three stories high in Gauteng, and then transporting these more than 2500 kilometres to a mine in the DRC - where all 3265 parts fitted perfectly, with not even one of the 26 900 bolts out of place. This was a massive achievement.

The time is now to implement a motor management strategy
Schneider Electric South Africa Editor's Choice Electrical switching & drive systems & components
Motor management plays an all-important role in controlling motor energy costs in various industries, segments and applications. Research and practical experience have consistently shown that effective motor management practices can result in significant energy savings, reduced operational costs, and improved overall system reliability.

SKF’s successful raid action in Cape Town
SKF South Africa Editor's Choice Shaft power components
Authorities, with collaborative support from SKF, recently conducted a large and highly effective raid on a very well-known bearing seller of SKF bearings in Cape Town.

Case study on automotive quality control
Motion Tronic Editor's Choice
Motion Tronic selected high-performance PLCs and HMIs from Inovance Technology to engineer a smart catalytic converter quality control solution for the exhaust facility at Toyota South Africa Motors.

PC-based motion control on a labelling machine
Beckhoff Automation Editor's Choice Electrical switching & drive systems & components
For 50 years, Bausch+Ströbel in Germany has been developing packaging and production systems for the pharmaceutical industries. The company’s goal is to offer the best technical and economical solutions for the challenges of modern industry. Its new ESA1025 labelling machine shows how this is achieved with PC-based control from Beckhoff as the central motion controller.

Thrust for hybrid electric flying
Editor's Choice Electrical switching & drive systems & components
Several leading academic institutes in Germany are collaborating on the future of hybrid electric flying. The partners are researching an entirely new propulsion system for medium-range aircraft with up to 35 passengers.

Tough couplings for tough industries
Bearing Man Group T/A BMG Editor's Choice
BMG’s extensive range of power transmission components encompasses robust products from Regal Rexnord, a leading manufacturer of critical system components that perform efficiently under rigorous demands in diverse applications.

Hydraulic connectors with residual pressure
Editor's Choice Hydraulic systems & components
Hydraulic connections are vital in both outdoor and indoor industrial machinery. However, the hydraulics lines frequently require connecting and disconnecting for maintenance or changeover. The goal is to enable quick, easy swaps to enhance machine flexibility and productivity.

Inovance brings advanced motion control to South Africa
Motion Tronic Editor's Choice
Inovance and its South African distributor, Motion Tronic are launching the Easy Series PLC in this country, bringing its flexible, high-performance motion control solution to customers across South Africa in a wide range of industry sectors.