Webinar Qs & As


I often get asked for higher IP rated robots at a lower cost I suggest the cheapest option is to put a standard robot in a protected cover there is a lot of resistance. Why is this?

Higher IP (industrial protection) ratings normally come at a higher cost, but that is also subject to the production volumes of the robots. Initially, it may be less costly to provide a protective cover on a standard robot; however, there will be on-going costs to replace jackets. The jackets may not be as effective as the factory supplied higher IP solution, which could reduce the life of the robot and/or increase maintenance costs.

Supermarkets need to unstack deliveries, which is an important consideration when palletising. However, breaking mixed SKU (stock keeping unit) pallets down to a single SKU – to allow them to be picked – is labour intensive and time consuming.

Mixed SKU pallets are used where the volumes of each SKU do not complete a pallet to minimise shipping cost (by maximising the product on the trucks). Agreed this does take time at the factory end but at the supermarket I am not convinced it makes much difference. Therefore, the supermarkets have less incentive to come up with a different approach.

We develop innovative solutions that focus on waste reduction. The main barrier we face when working with machine builders are brand specifications dictated by food manufacturers rather than machine builders, why is this the case?

If the brand specifications relate to the selection of specific suppliers for the components of a system (e.g. the robot or PLC) to be supplied to an end user, this is normal practice for many larger companies to ensure their maintenance staff have relevant experience. It also helps to minimise the cost of any spares holdings.

There have been numerous reported COVID-19 outbreaks at meat processing plants/ fish processing plants, where workers are often working close to each other, could robotics be a good business justification to prevent cross-contamination?

One benefit of robots/automation is the potential to reduce worker density, which given the current challenges regarding COVID-19, may well assist the justification for some projects.

Do you see AMRs replacing fixed conveyors to give greater flexibility within your facilities?

The use of AMRs (autonomous mobile robots) will enhance flexibility, accessibility and reduce maintenance costs. However, the investment required is higher and projects are easier to implement on greenfield sites. Conveyors can provide some benefits, such as floor level changes and cooling buffers. Longer-term, the expectation is AMRs will become much more widespread, but the decision should be made basis on the most appropriate and cost-effective solution for a specific facility or requirement.

As flexibility has been a big discussion point, how would you (Martin Miller) define and evaluate flexibility when comparing automation suppliers?

I don’t normally look at the OEMs from a flexibility standpoint as they won’t understand our business – normally I try to ensure internal stakeholders (particularly sales and marketing) understand the constraints that we will be building into the manufacturing process e.g. in a packaging automation, the constraints on payload, pack size, packaging material, etc. that the system will impose.

Is robot accuracy a factor when considering use within certain applications: i.e. are there applications that are very demanding in terms of robot accuracy and, as such, represent a barrier to use?

Robot accuracy is rarely an issue in food applications, repeatability is more important. However, the tolerances in food production are generally much wider than many other sectors and, therefore, robots can achieve the repeatability required.

Brexit: is there an estimate for how much cash is available for firms to invest in automation through grants pre-Brexit (via EU schemes) and post-Brexit via the UK Government?

There are no significant EU schemes to provide grants to support investment in automation (pre- or post-Brexit). Most EU funding relates to research or innovation and the UK (via universities) has been successful in gaining support via this route. There are adoption support programmes in some countries (e.g. Italy and France), but these are developed and funded by individual countries. The UK has a pilot programme running in the north west of England called Made Smarter.

Would the banks be open to financing the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) to build the lines that can then be paid per part by the end user?

The concept of applying servitisation-type business models has not yet been utilised with automation systems. However, leasing and rental business models are starting to be used. Alternative financing models are likely to become more widely used in the future.

How can manufacturers deal with situations where a change of packaging format or material has made it much harder to use machinery recently installed? How far does a rapidly developing materials’ strategy interfere with investment in machinery?

This would be a justification for applying robot-based automation which can provide more flexibility than other forms of automation. Careful consideration should be given to flexibility and future proofing at the design stage by designing in reconfigurability. This may lead to higher cost in the short-term, but lower costs in the long-term. 

In terms of reluctance to invest, how much of a factor is dealing with legacy systems (e.g. over-reliance, resultant downtime in removal)?

This can be a significant issue, but always on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, this challenge needs to be overcome, because the use of outdated, inefficient and unreliable machinery is not a viable approach.

How much of a factor holding back investment is nervousness around integrating machinery into an existing line and into existing production management software?

Integration into existing lines and software can be a challenge and it is not the longer-term answer as machinery becomes outdated, inefficient and unreliable.

The problem with today’s collaborative robots is capacity is often too slow, payload is too low, and weaker than conventional robots. Why is this?

Robots, typically known as collaborative, must be slower and have lower payloads than industrial (traditional) robots, otherwise they are not safe to work alongside. Industrial robots can be used in “fenceless” situations with appropriate additional equipment. The key issue is the application; picking the appropriate robot, associated equipment and safety systems to perform the required task. This may or may not be a collaborative application.

How can the food industry compete with the likes of the aerospace industry to attract the calibre of worker that would be able to advise on and maintain advanced industry 4.0 and IoT (internet of things) systems?

There are essentially two aspects to this. Firstly, to promote the role/sector and ensure it is seen be interesting and provide good careers. Secondly, to be prepared to provide equivalent packages.

I have not heard anybody explain what differentiates the UK to the rest of Europe. Surely, they have the same issues but still make the change, so what is the difference?

Europe is willing to invest in capital equipment (buy the latest technologies) whereas we have a culture of keeping old machinery running. This is generally true and impacts our willingness to invest in robots. We also have much more flexible labour laws and workforces (e.g. agency staff).  This means we can very easily flex our labour pool, whereas in Europe they do not have the same flexibility. Using labour here is not a long-term commitment (unlike capital expenditure), while in Europe it is a long-term commitment. Over the last few years, the UK has attracted significant numbers of eastern European workers which have helps us to meet our labour resource needs.

Is Schubert machinery manufactured or designed in the UK? If not, what are the reasons? Remote Dial in support is certainly more popular in France, Germany, and Italy (to name a few countries), but not so readily available in the UK?

Schubert is a German company with pedigree in the design and manufacture of Vision-guided Robotic packaging machines spanning 50 years. All of Schubert’s equipment is manufactured in Germany, where we have developed a very well-established skillset in this field. However, the Schubert Group recognises the need for ‘local’ expertise and support. Therefore, in the territories where it makes no logistical sense to provide frontline support from Schubert’s manufacturing centre in Germany, we incorporated Schubert’s 100% owned subsidiaries in the UK, North America, Canada and China. The UK Subsidiary, in operation now for 20 years, has a team of highly experienced ‘local’ technical experts providing excellent customer support.

Do you think the cost and time of integrating automation/robotic systems prevents SMEs from investing in solutions?

The perception that there are costs and resource requirements outside the reach of SMEs is a factor in some cases, but we need to overcome that perception. There are many SMEs who have successfully implemented robot systems with significant benefits as a result. E.g. Candy Mechanics.

What can the robotics industry do to further promote the message that automation of simple tasks does not take jobs away from people?

We are making progress and need to keep promoting good case studies and the benefits of automation. There have been many studies demonstrating that robots and automation lead to more and better jobs. Our position is not helped by the confusion relating to Robot Process Automation (RPA) which is and will have an impact on many white-collar roles. The mainstream media do not differentiate between industrial robots in manufacturing and RPA and, therefore, tend to publish negative messages when relating to future employment. However, progress is being made. The House of Commons BEIS Committee conducted a study into “Automation and the Future of Work”, which it published in 2019. The first line of the summary stated: “The problem for the UK labour market and our economy is not that we have too many robots in the workplace, but that we have too few.”

I am interested in potentially using robots to assist in research and development (R&D) to increase productivity. What industries (other than Food & Drink) might be more advanced with using robots for development – what are these?

Robots are not necessarily difficult to program. The use of simulation and offline programming tools can make it feasible to use robots for one off type tasks. Flexible systems can be developed to assist in R&D activities. For example: The University of Liverpool has built a robot system undertaking research within its chemical laboratory. https://eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-07/uol-lrb070620.php

What do they think will be the main focus for automation/robotics innovation in food manufacturing in future – productivity, sustainability, cost reduction, labour reduction, hygiene?

In the short-term I believe labour reduction is the major issue as labour availability is a growing challenge. Energy (net zero) is a short-term challenge and automation has a role to play in this area. Productivity and cost-reduction will be ever-present requirements. Increased hygiene will also be important with automation, providing the opportunity to implement more hygienic operations.

What role do you think robotics/automation could have in the hygiene approach for food manufacturers, as this represents a significant cost for companies?

The major issue in terms of hygiene within high care is normally the workforce. If we can fully automate a high care area it will be much easier to maintain strong hygiene standards.

What advice can you give for an organisation that offers innovation to the food industry, as to how to get their message across and implement?

Innovative solutions often require a champion; someone who is willing to be the first user, but also willing to talk about and promote the solution to other potential users.

A lot of UK factories are labour intensive; playing catch up on automation compared to other countries. What supplier initiatives are available to help businesses become more automated without the need for large sums of capital investment?

Some initiatives of this type exist (e.g. Siemens). There are also leasing, and rental options being developed. However, these financial models are not yet commonplace. It is also worth noting that the cost of capital is very low at present; therefore, providing a good business case exists, which a bank would support, finance should not be a barrier.

What are the key barriers to implementing innovation – capital, capability, resources, impact/ROI?

All of these factors act as barriers to innovation, but there are others. Risk of failure is a major barrier to implementing innovation, which links to impact/ROI and is the biggest barrier to implementing innovation. However, careful risk management and mitigation can ensure implementing innovation is relatively straightforward.

Do you think that the harmonised standards for robot safety (EN ISO 10218 and ISO/TS 15066) help or hinder?

Harmonised standards are important to ensure that robots are implemented safety. When understood and implied, it should not put people off implementing robots, as they can act as a useful tool. They can be tricky to understand in the first instance, which can deter people; however, there are organisations that can help explain the standards and navigate you through the process.