Marking its 30th anniversary this year, Adept Technology supplies motion control, machine vision and intelligent automation technology to food processing, packaging and other industries. Merrill Apter, Adept’s vice president of North American sales, told FoodProductionDaily that automation solutions have evolved in recent years to deliver an increasing number of advantages.
“Robotic automation brings many benefits to food and beverage processors, primarily by introducing unparalleled flexibility to the gamut of packaging operations,” he said.
The US and global food markets are characterized by product expansion. In 1994, the country’s supermarkets carried an average of 25,000 unique brands, package sizes and flavors, according to US Department of Agriculture research.
By 2010, that figure had exploded to nearly 39,000; in just one year, the US market saw 20,000 new food and beverage product introductions.
Apter said that automation technology enables parameters of a processing system to be adjusted with a quick change of menu options on the control panel. Such flexibility is essential in the face of ever-evolving consumer preferences, he told FPD.
“New tastes are arising for reasons as diverse as health consciousness and budgetary concerns,” Apter said. “New categories such as ethnic, organic, gluten-free, sugar-free, low-fat, high-fiber, low-sodium, and caffeine-free continue to proliferate product and part types, or SKUs.”
The desire of food firms and retailers to build brands through a broadening range of portion sizes and packaging formats (including fridge packs and club-store sizes) also are driving product diversification, Apter said. Consumers also are seeking smaller-quantity packs that meet low-budget concerns.
Labor and talent
Automation technology also helps with labor concerns. The use of robots and other technology helps fill the labor shortage gap, reduces payroll expenditures and reduces the risk of exposure to worker’s compensation claims.
In the past, some professionals in the food industry have been hesitant to pursue automation, for fear of having to tackle inordinately complicated equipment and gear. However, Apter told FPD, one key advancement in the automation field is increased ease of use.
“Equipped with innovations such as improved vision and conveyor tracking, advanced gripping tools, wash down capabilities, and ease of integration provided by food-specific programming software, the latest generation of robots combines affordability, reliability, and speed with the flexibility of quick product changeover and gentle, sanitary handling,” he said.
Further, Apter said, the quick-changeover capability that automation affords can give a processing or packaging operation benefits beyond decreased downtime.
“This ability to changeover quickly to fill customized retail orders on the same line not only boosts productivity but also opens new business opportunities,” he said.
Adept Technology provides a number of products in the automation arena, including software, electronics, sensors and robotics. Apter told FPD that the company works with food firms to ensure their automation system fits their requirements.
“To satisfy an end user’s need, we team and partner with integrators who can install and qualify a system on the food producer’s production floor,” he said.
The automation products Adept produces includes the Quattro robot, the only USDA-approved robot currently on the market. Paired with its SoftPIC grippers, food processing companies can perform fast, accurate, hygienic product transfer in primary or secondary packaging, Apter said.