As the COVID-19 pandemic has taken hold, we have seen a succession of COVID clusters in food processing and packaging plants. The seriousness of the problem cuts across businesses of all sizes, and the food sector is setting out on new ways of working to create COVID safe environments. 

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How does COVID-19 take hold in food companies? 

The food and drink manufacturing industry in the UK employs over 400,000 people. With sales of over £74 billion, it is our largest manufacturing sector, larger in fact than automobiles and aerospace combined (source: Food and Drink Federation). So, it is hugely important to find solutions to the problems the virus presents.

The exposure for food and drink companies comes from the virus spreading efficiently in cold temperatures, both in the air and on surfaces. The problem is made worse by plant layouts which involve people working close to one another. Machine noise results in staff shouting which contributes to aerosol transmission. From bakers to meat processors, seafood producers, sandwich makers, convenience food companies, banana ripeners and more, the virus has thrown a huge challenge out to the food and drink sector.

How can robots help to beat COVID-19?     

According to Simon Pearson of the University of Lincoln, anything that takes people out of the food processing cycle will be a high priority for the future (see Machinery Update September/October 2020 pages 10/11).

Replacing people with robots was a hot topic in food processing and packaging before the pandemic, with good reason. Robots mean no absence, no problems with getting staff to remote places, and no issues with the availability of overseas workers. Robots excel at mundane, repetitive and arduous applications, and are increasingly an attractive option for end of line packaging and palletising. 

The key advantages of robots in the fight against the virus are that they solve many of the problems of social distancing and hygiene.

How do robots help with social distancing?

In the context of the COVID-19 crisis, a key issue is that social distancing concerns do not apply to robots. End to end automated systems eradicate almost all of the risks of virus transmission but are not always practical, affordable or even achievable. For most businesses, the priority is to find solutions which combine human skills with robotic functions, and to allow greater space between people. This is a time when the skills and know-how of systems integrators really come into their own.

Automated social distance monitoring technology is another weapon in the fight against the virus. Sensors using an app based on machine learning algorithms can be used to count people in and out of a monitored area in real-time, and to create alerts if people get too close to one another. Thermal imaging and vision technology can be linked to measure fever and temperature, and can be automatically triggered into operation by a chip in personal ID cards. 

How can robots help with hygiene?

The management of hygiene is far simpler with robots than humans. Robots are not vulnerable to toxic or dangerous cleaning processes, and there are no issues around shared eating, rest or sanitation spaces. The greater the proportion of robots and automation, the more COVID secure the workplace.

Workplace design increasingly involves screens, frames and clear plastic sheeting. The COVID era has also accelerated the use of other machine features such as knee or sensor operated spouts, wand operation and contact free hand cleaning and drying. 

Robots can be used for disinfecting spaces in warehouses, processing plants and retail spaces using, for example, UV lamps, which human operators could not use for health and safety reasons. 

Do robots make processing and packaging more flexible?

One of the lessons of 2020 is that flexibility is a major advantage. In uncertain times

shorter runs have become more of a priority, as retailers and suppliers hold back from committing to large orders. The ability to switch a line between products of different shapes and sizes increases the chances of staying busy and profitable. 

The market is growing for automated or semi-automated systems which can be quickly and easily reprogrammed and reconfigured for a range of SKUs (stock-keeping units). The switch from gin to hand sanitisers, or fashion garments to PPE are real life examples of the way in which some businesses have adapted to the COVID crisis. PPMA member companies have also been at the forefront of supporting the NHS during the crisis. 

Training and servicing at a distance

Travelling to provide on-site services is no longer an option in many cases, especially for overseas clients. The technology-driven solution is to provide distance consultations, audits, training and field services via the many communication tools available. Systems can be set up to allow for many of the functions normally associated with site visits to be provided on a self-serve basis or by online communications. Such an approach is quicker and cheaper than site visits, giving businesses the opportunity for cost saving and efficiency.   

Do crises drive innovation?

The food industry is dynamic and is very well used to responding to fast-changing consumer tastes and demands. The COVID crisis is driving more change and the food sector is responding with increased use of robots, automation and artificial intelligence. There is a cost to innovation, but equipment manufacturers and some financial institutions are supporting innovation with forward-looking leasing schemes which make innovation affordable. 

No-one welcomes a crisis, but the result of COVID-19 for the food and drink sector is a drive for sustainable innovation which will serve businesses and consumers well in the years ahead. 

To stay in touch with the latest in robot automation for the food sector, put the date in your diary for PPMA Show 2021, 28-30 September at the NEC, Birmingham.