David Jahn, director of Brillopak, explains how 2021 is poised to become the year when robotic arms replace human hands at end of line packing operations in the food industry...

return to their original roles and this pool of labour will no longer be available. The benefits of replacing manual workers

with robots are widely known – increased efficiency, consistent output and a rise in productivity, to name a few. But automation now offers the potential for food manufacturers to create a more Covid-friendly work environment and redeploy the labour that remains to more business-critical tasks. Previous concerns over size and cost can

to fast-track our robotics revolution. Since the early noughties, the UK has relied on


a steady stream of cheap European workers to support our food and agricultural sectors. But following the EU referendum in 2016, these numbers have been dwindling; in 2019, the ONS reported that National Insurance numbers allocated to EU citizens dropped by 28% from 2015, and arrivals of EU citizens planning to spend at least 12 months in the UK fell by 34%. There is a reason why the sector is so reliant on migrant labour. To put it bluntly, the supply of good- quality, affordable labour to support the requirements of our food sector is drying up. The obvious solution is to automate,

particularly for the more repetitive and physically demanding end-of-line tasks, such as picking, packing and palletising. But despite the labour challenges faced by the industry, over half of businesses are still unwilling to invest in automation equipment and a further 27% are unwilling to change production processes (source: industrial-robotics-uk/). Then in 2020, the entire landscape shifted. The

Covid-19 pandemic has forced companies to decrease the number of employees on site and ensure that social distancing can be maintained for those that remain. The lockdown has also made foreign travel a near-impossibility, further depleting the number of European workers available for hire. For labour-intensive packhouses, often comprising large numbers of foreign employees within a tight space, this presents an unprecedented challenge. There is without doubt a nervousness about what looms for 2021’s picking season. Despite the government’s best efforts with their Pick for Britain campaign, people working on farms will

also be negated. Today’s end-of-line robot systems can easily fit into a tight footprint and can deliver a return on investment within just a few years. This is due to increased throughput

nlike many of our European counterparts, the UK has been slow to automate. But a perfect storm of Brexit and Covid-19 is set

2013, our facility processed approximately 30,000 boxes of apples and pears every week,” said James Simpson, managing director. “Now, typical weekly production is 80-100,000 boxes a week.” Adrian Scripps chose to partner with

Brillopak and now employs four UniPAKer automated crate loading cells, each housing two delta-type robots. While the labour-saving benefits of automating were clear – productivity has increased three- fold – it was the UniPAKer’s flexibility that sealed the deal: “We looked at mechanical systems where the pack is turned to orientate it, but the flexibility of the UniPAKer won us over,” said Simpson. “It is infinitely programmable and allows you to make very small adjustments to get the pack to the exact target location. Apples are not an easy fruit to handle because they bruise very easily. This, combined with the need to execute a range of crate patterns, made this project a challenge that couldn’t be met by a mechanical system.” The UniPAKer is also

suitable for the meat, fish & poultry sector, following the development of an end- effector that offers increased suction and control when handling trays and skin packs. Capable of packing tray-sealed meat packs in excess of 70 packs

leading to higher production levels, and also because it removes repetitive, arduous tasks which lead to absenteeism and therefore higher staffing costs. The case for automation is therefore more

persuasive in 2021 than ever before, but there is a key downside to a reduction in personnel – plenty of people means plenty of flexibility. If labour is to be successfully replaced by machines, then the machines must be able to replicate this flexibility.

For one of Tesco’s top apple suppliers, Adrian Scripps, this focus on flexibility was crucial and played a key role in its decision to automate. The company doubled its hectare productivity over the last 15 years and needed to upgrade its packing facility to accommodate the increased throughput. “In

per minute, the UniPAKer can be easily programmed to pack any combination of product into any crate size. It is clear, therefore, that today’s

automated solutions are more than just a robotic replacement for a manual worker. Compact, hygienic, and with the ability to pick and place consistently and accurately at high speed, the best examples also offer food manufacturers complete production flexibility. The challenges of Brexit and now Covid may also prove the catalysts for welcome change, prompting food producers to enjoy all the benefits that automation has to offer.



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