Covid was a wake-up call for all sectors, especially food & beverage

Sponsor: Expert comment, KUKA Robotics UK Ltd.

Geopolitical events have changed manufacturing and the General Industry segment has benefited greatly. The argument that robots can remove dull, repetitive tasks from humans while raising accuracy and output has been used for decades but, finally, more companies are accepting it –
and are reaping great benefits.

Bernard Bagley, Head of Robot Sales, GI, KUKA Robotics UK and South Africa

KUKA Group is on target to sell 50,000 units globally this fiscal year – this is a truly incredible feat.

Our order books are fuller than they’ve ever been at this point in the year. But we also have big supply issues, from limit switches to silicon chips to the price of steel – but everyone globally is suffering here too.

Why? The UK’s position in the world robot density league table (robots per 10,000 manufacturing workforce) is very low – just 24th. However, the economic impact of Covid has prompted the owners and accountants of many companies, to reassess their position on robotic automation; the consensus being, that it must be taken much more seriously, going forward. The pandemic was a wake-up call for all sectors of manufacturing, particular food and beverage (F&B) – a key market for us. Social distancing and staff shortages, because of Brexit and Covid, have driven many companies to look at automation rather than relying on low-cost labour.

It’s about future-proofing too; nobody can afford the crash in output from another pandemic.

The demand for robots is from both multinationals and small businesses. The beverage sector has had the biggest increase, and we have eight or nine live projects for automating F&B manufacturing facilities at the moment.

For example, at Unilever’s site in Seacroft, Leeds our Systems Partner SCM Handling was tasked to depalletize deodorant aerosols, which had been manually handballing until last year. With SCM Handling, we have delivered 11 end-of-line palletizing systems – a great example where robots have removed people from doing a menial task to be redeployed. Ultimately, nobody has lost their jobs, because of the robots. From this project we have signed a global supply agreement with Unilever.

Distancing in factories was a big driver in F&B – the best combination for automation is where people work alongside the automation. We design automation cells so that, should there be any technology problems, you can still run the line manually. But now operators are skilled in how to programme the PLCs to run this and other systems as well as the manual work.

The doubters will always say that robots will take more jobs but, to be honest, who wants to stand there palletizing boxes? It’s not a very interesting job at all. The person could be doing more satisfying work.

Innovation: Novel applications, vision systems, new software OS

Our new Platinum System Partner PTL Automation Limited produces cow disinfection systems that disinfects the cows’ udders before they are milked. Leasing this equipment costs less than employing people to do it. It uses a unique vision system developed by PTL Automation Limited, this is market leading software that gives the necessary data for the KUKA Iontec Robots to carry out the automated disinfection process.

We introduced the IONTEC robot for the mid-, 20kg to 70Kg range, which uses a minimal interference contours’. Demand for this range is very high. Another product revolution is our operating system. We are creating an ecosystem around products so that people can download an application and run it straight on the robot, customising their work to them. It’s faster and more intuitive for customers who are new to robots. l

“Who wants to palletize boxes? It’s not a very interesting job at all”