In what was the worst year for investment in the sector since BARA's records began in 1997, food manufacturing accounted for 20 per cent of all commercial robot sales – 15 per cent up on 2008 data. A total of 94 unit sales were logged – the highest ever figure from BARA, although it admitted a small amount of sales might not have been recorded.
Combined sales to the automotive sector would be higher at 25% of the total, but BARA splits these sales in two. It divides automotive component makers, which chalked up 14 per cent of sales, and original equipment manufacturers, which represented 11 per cent.
“The most intriguing thing is that food became the biggest single sector for robot sales in 2009,” said BARA president Mike Wilson, who is also chairman of the Yorkshire-based Centre for Food, Robotics and Automation’s (CenFRA’s) Technical Advisory Group. “This supports the general view that there is growing interest in robots and automation in the food industry.”
Wilson admitted that part of the reason why the food industry had been able to close the gap with the automotive sector was that the latter had been hit hard by the recession. “It’s fair to say the recession hasn’t helped. It’s dampened the inclination to spend money.”
Barriers to investing in robots
Some processors were reluctant to risk splashing out on automation because they could not adequately test the potential benefits and return on investment. However, Wilson said CenFRA, which is located in Doncaster and aims to link commercial and academic interests and advise businesses on automation projects, was addressing this.
“One of the areas where we are doing a lot of work is [computer] simulation, where firms can model the processes they currently have, identify problems, then change and benchmark the results,” he said. “Simulation technology is easier to use and more user-friendly now. CenFRA has recently taken on that capability and a lot of people are taking that service up.”
The approach costs money, but it was nothing like the outlay for an automation project, said Wilson. “You might invest £5,000 and get a good idea of where to go forward – much better than investing £300,000 and getting bad results.”
Automation and Robotics roundtable
Wilson is chairing Food Manufacture’s Automation and Robotics roundtable debate on March 16 at CenFRA’s headquarters. The event is free for those working in food and drink processing. It is designed for operations directors, factory managers and production managers to discuss the benefits and barriers to automating production lines.
In addition to the main discussion, there will be a guided tour of CenFRA HQ, providing first hand examples of system and robot design, and the opportunity to stay on for one-to-one discussions and further networking. For more information, visit http://www.foodanddrinkevents.com/foodman/auto_robotics.