Robots, reality and revolution

The largest plant in Poland owned by a global-brand manufacturer of household cleaning products has averaged more than one addition to the production team every week for the last two years. What makes this trend noteworthy is the fact that all 124 new arrivals are robots

If you thought robots were the future, you would be wrong; they are the present. As evidenced by this consumer goods facility outside Warsaw, robotic automation is a feature of the packaging here-and-now. More surprisingly, robots not only represent current operating technology, they are also green.

When you look at robotics from an energy perspective compared with traditional workforce personnel, in a simple head-to-head scenario, the carbon footprint numbers add up in favour of automation, concludes Klaus Petersen, director of marketing in Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) for Mitsubishi Electric Factory Automation

“Just by comparing the average footprint of a complete working day, including human commute time, the robot emits half the CO2. And we have not even considered that a Mitsubishi robot could do more than 100 pick-and-place movements a minute, making it several times more productive than a human being. At the end of the day, the CO2 footprint of the produced goods would be many times lower using the robot for repetitive tasks.”

a Mitsubishi robot
a Mitsubishi robot

Of course, there are both job security fears and broader sustainability considerations to take into account with automation, he acknowledges.

“People are often scared that robotics are a cause of job losses in the industry. But when you look at the capabilities of a robot compared with a human worker, the core strengths are completely different,” he says.

“For humans, repetitive work typically leads to employee dissatisfaction and often a shortfall in production quality. But for a robot this is the perfect environment. Therefore, you’d rather have a robot doing the repetitive work, and your workforce contributing to optimising processes and harnessing their ability to adapt to new situations.

“If we can combine all these aspects, we actually see the use of robots creates a win-win situation by enabling the workforce to add value with their true skills – creating a better, happier and more productive working environment – with performance against sustainability targets also enhanced through reductions in the carbon footprint of the manufacturing company.”

FOOD AND BEVERAGE

Automation is high on the investment agenda for the food and beverage sector, which accounts for 70 per cent of all packaging consumed within the UK and promises the largest growth potential for the industry.

Consumer desire to spend less, reduce waste and have fresh food for longer has led to market opportunities in this sector, says Mitsubishi Electric Factory Automation’s original equipment manufacturer (OEM) UK solutions manager Jon Sumner.

“The key trend relates to reducing food waste in the home,” he says. “A report by WRAP [Waste & Resources Action Programme] suggested that the cost of discarded food to each UK household is around £270 a year, and concerns have driven several changes within the packaging industry, such as re-sealable packs, greater variety in portion and pack sizes, plus modified atmosphere packaging (MAP). All are designed to prolong the useable life of fresh food.”

Food and beverage, in general, is facing a slew of commercial challenges, such as slow throughput, lack of profitability, product failures, wastage, excess stock, poor information flow, plus issues with shipping deadlines, traceability and regulatory compliance.

In response, the key benefits and capabilities of integrated, intelligent automation solutions include:

  • Process improvement and visualisation;
  • Quality management;
  • Integration into business applications;
  • Reporting and analysis, track and trace;
  • Regulatory compliance;
  • Energy saving and optimisation; plus
  • Manufacturing intelligence.

The upshot is that traditional mechanical packaging machine solutions are being replaced with the latest servo and robotic solutions, which by their very nature increase production rates, while simultaneously reducing waste and energy usage.

WINDS OF CHANGE

Addressing the major manufacturing metrics of energy saving, productivity (cost allocation) and quality, all within an overarching sustainability framework, is the automation game changer for packaging, according to Jamy Michel, director vertical industries, food and beverage consumer packaged goods (F&B CPG), EMEA, at Mitsubishi Electric Factory Automation.

Automation is high on the investment agenda for the food and beverage sector, which accounts for 70 per cent of all packaging consumed within the UK

“Intelligent automation can improve the efficiency of your production lines, respond faster to new market demands and maximise the usage of resources. All benefits are achievable and deliverable with full visibility, to enrich society with performing technology,” he says.

If you think such a scenario sounds more dream than reality, again you are wrong. Mitsubishi Electric robots are already handling 4.1 billion biscuits every year, plus its equipment is producing and packaging 15,000 tons of salty snacks, with 2.7 billion litres of dairy products delivered in 2013.

Furthermore, the success stories are not simply about speed and volume, efficiency and consumption. An established European name in cakes and pastries saw its daily cookie production increase from 12,000kg to 22,000kg, accompanied by a 20 per cent uplift in quality. In the UK, a major dairy company not only reduced energy usage by up to 173kW per hour using Mitsubishi Electric variable speed drives, programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and human-machine interfaces (HMIs), so saving on running costs, but the operation was also able to down-rate the pump motors considerably, saving on material costs, too.

With multiple performance benefits and resource savings, plus long-term customer support enhanced by backwards compatibility of new system releases, Mitsubishi Electric is encouraging packaging companies to think about lifecycle management in terms of “solutions”, not just products.

“Cultural change is as irresistible as the technology driving it,” concludes Mr Michel. “Forced to manage the big shift to a more sustainable business model, the packaging industry sits on the cusp of a revolution – and the revolution will be automated.”

CARBON FOOTPRINT: ROBOT V HUMAN

MITSUBISHI ROBOT

Average power consumption = 500W

In Germany 1kWh = approximately 600g of CO2 emissions (Statista GmbH) – but, let’s be a bit more pessimistic and assume it produces a whole 1kg.

Therefore, with 240 8-hour working days a year,

robot footprint = 0.5kW x 8h x 240 days x 1000g/kWh

= 960kg of CO2

HUMAN WORKFORCE

Person is living 20km from the factory and driving there and back in a car that produces 188g/km.

Therefore, with 240 8-hour working days a year,

human footprint = 188g/km x 20km x 2 x 240 days

= 1805kg of CO2