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Labor shortage, new regulations among drivers for robotics demand, innovation



Photo courtesy of Zepnick Solutions

ROBOTIC PROCESS — Robotics often are used in the packaging and palletizing process in the cheese and dairy industry, such as in this palletizing system provided by Zepnick Solutions.

By Rena Archwamety

MADISON, Wis. — The use of robotics steadily has been growing in the cheese and dairy industry, and now with companies across industries facing labor shortages, safety and efficiency needs, demand is higher than ever.

“The demand for robotics is skyrocketing. Global sales set records last year, and the growth is likely to continue, driven by labor shortages and global competitive pressure,” says Søren Peters, CEO of HowToRobot.com, a global market platform that connects buyers with suppliers of robots and automation solutions. “What has changed in recent years is that robotics has become a lot more accessible for SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) as well, which drives further growth.”

The automotive sector makes up the largest portion of demand. According to a 2022 report on robots and cobots from PMMI-The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, this sector accounted for 42% of 2021 North American share of robotics orders. However, growth in sectors outside of automotive — including the food and dairy industry — is growing.

“The revolution in robot capabilities enabled by the improvement and standardization of technology has pushed robotics to greater levels of adoption outside of their initial role in the automotive industry,” the PMMI report says. “As robots become more advanced, their roles will continue to expand and deployments will continue to grow across manufacturing industries.”

According to Peters, about one-third of the demand for automation solutions on the HowToRobot.com platform is coming from food and beverage companies.

“The automotive sector has historically been adopting the most robots,” he says. “But today we also see a huge interest from especially manufacturers within metal and machinery, and food and beverage, including a growing interest from the agriculture and dairy sectors, that are looking for automation to make up for labor shortages.”

• Driving demand

Some recent factors such as the pandemic and subsequent workplace shifts have accelerated the adoption of robotics in the food and dairy processing industry, which already was on an upward trend.

Food and beverage manufacturers were adopting and increasing their use of automation back in the early 2000s, particularly as more washdown-ready products became available, notes Brady Hoes, vice president of Loos Machine & Automation, a custom automation provider based in Colby, Wisconsin. Manufacturers found they could transfer very labor-intensive work that traditionally had been done by hand to automated processes, and mechanical solutions for the food industry became more advanced and affordable.

Then after the pandemic, customers were looking to diversify more with products between foodservice and retail. Unfortunately, they often couldn’t attract enough employees or get them to return following the quarantine, Hoes says.

“We’ve always provided robotics solutions, but with our customers’ best interests in mind, we never have pressured them,” Hoes notes. “The pandemic was a game changer with the changing workforce. As things opened up in the fall of 2021, it was obvious that cheese and dairy were very accepting and welcoming of this technology. We really started seeing more requests and projects with robotics.”

While automation and robotics can be a solution for labor shortages, it also can help in other areas.

“We’ve seen a very significant increase in demand, ever since the COVID pandemic began over the last few years. We get creative automation requests — a lot of requests to automate processes that previously required humans. These solutions help with labor, but also ergonomics and employee retention, and more efficiency,” says Megan Pickett, business development leader for Zepnick Solutions, a Green Bay, Wisconsin-based personalized automation solutions provider. Historically we haven’t seen robotics over raw products, but now we’re seeing more and more requests for either vendors or modifications to make sure it is washdown-safe.”

• Starting place

HowToRobot.com launched in 2020 as a platform that matches businesses in need of automation with relevant suppliers and solutions. A business can post its project to the platform, and HowToRobot will notify suppliers who send proposals to the client. Peters notes HowToRobot today is the largest marketplace in the industry, covering more than 16,000 robot and automation suppliers.

“HowToRobot’s platform is free to use for automation buyers. Each project is assigned an expert that helps the business find what they are looking for,” Peters says. “Suppliers pay to engage with clients and are charged a small commission on the projects they win. This ensures high-quality responses to clients.”

If a business requires a better overview of where to start before investing, HowToRobot might refer them to its sister company, Gain & Co., which consults customers looking to implement robotics and automation. Gain & Co., which has two offices in Denmark, one in the United Kingdom and one in Chicago, will provide an overview of “low-hanging opportunities” for automation in that business, providing an impartial expert view on where automation makes the most sense and where the biggest return on investment can be found.

In the cheese and dairy industry, robotics often is used to handle finished products, such as when products go into primary packaging, cardboard boxes, or are palletized, labeled and wrapped, according to Morten Nielsen, senior robot and automation advisor for Gain & Co.

“Then as you have products with larger volumes, you can start moving automation into the process itself, producing product and mixing ingredients,” Nielsen says. “Usually producing food products is, from a technological point of view, a bit more complicated than packaging.”

Some benefits of using a consulting partner like Gain & Co. is that it’s maket neutral and can help specify the process to be automated to get competitive offers from relevant manufactures in the market, Nielsen notes.

“We can go in with a more positive dialogue and develop a process for automating, so we get the job done and don’t have to adapt their process to whatever products a supplier might have,” he explains.

For companies that have long-standing reputations in the cheese and dairy industries, word of mouth and repeat customers drive much of their business.

“The majority of our work is with existing or returning customers,” Hoes says, adding that Loos Machine will sit down with them to understand their cycle times, payloads, number of SKUs and variety of product, keeping future growth in mind as well. “Customers come to us and tell us what they need to do from raw material to finished product, which does not exist yet in a catalog or on Google. They need a custom solution, whether to fit a footprint in an existing space, or a product that doesn’t yet exist.”

Pickett also says the majority of Zepnick’s work is repeat business from existing customers. Zepnick also relies on recommendations, goes to industry shows every year and has been brought in by other consultants.

“Typically when we start working with a customer, step 1 is having a clearly defined problem statement or objective. We work closely with them to find out what we can achieve. Sometimes during this effort, we find out what they thought was the issue is not, and uncover something else that was the root cause,” Pickett says.

She also notes Zepnick works with customers of all sizes and can tailor its solutions approach to how it best fits their return on investment (ROI).

“If that means we have to do a project over a few years in different phases, we do whatever helps them be more successful,” she says. “We have done projects in smaller phases so customers can get an ROI on the first phase before starting the second phase.”

• New technology

Newer and more affordable technologies are opening up options in robotics to companies that previously may not have considered it an accessible opportunity. Nielsen notes that there have been recent developments in automated handling of products at end-of-line packaging for lower capacities, and smaller, more flexible solutions are available and relatively easy to implement.

“Vision technology and 3-D scanning of products is getting more affordable,” he says. “Raw material handling — receiving raw materials, putting them in stock and taking them out — that process of handling pallets or bulk goods with AMR (autonomous mobile robot) technology also is moving into the food industry. That technology of storing and retrieving ingredients from a warehouse has become more and more mature, affordable and easy to implement.”

Hoes says he sees a large influx of new technologies coming soon and looks forward to seeing what customers embrace in the area of IIoT (industrial internet of things) and smart manufacturing, which provide holistic solutions by communicating and making predictions across the supply chain.

He adds that his work at Loos Machine also recently has been focused on trying to predict how robotics in the food industry will be regulated and how technology solutions can align with future regulations.

“There’s a ‘Wild West’ approach right now, but I think we will see more regulation in the future,” Hoes says.

“Robotics has been there for years in other industries, but we will see more of it in food, and when it is going to be used in food-safe environments. For certain autonomous solutions, we will see some impending regulation coming downstream at some point, and we want to be ready.”

Pickett also says robotics vendors have been looking to improve their offerings in compliance with USDA and 3-A SSI standards so that Zepnick has not had to make all those modifications in-house to align with food and dairy industry requirements.

She adds that with new technologies in robotics, more is possible with customized solutions.

“Even though a process historically has involved human interaction, it definitely is worth an inquiry to see what we can do,” she says. “We love getting very, very creative. I have a fantastic technical team behind me that always is excited to tackle new things and challenges that have not been done before.”

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