• Sherime Gotfredsen

‘Cobots’ can strengthen Thailand’s food

Tech January 15, 2018 01:00

By Shermine Gotfredsen
Special to The Nation

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The “Kitchen of the World”, Thailand is one of the largest producers of food products including rice, sugar, chicken and frozen seafood -- and the largest food exporter in Southeast Asia.

As the processing and distribution centre for the Southeast Asian region, the country’s food product exports reached US$24 billion (Bt768.4 billion) in 2016 and is forecast to reach $26.6 billion (Bt851.6 billion) this year. This growth can be attributed to an abundant supply of food materials and the competitive prices of major agricultural products. 

A growing population and changing consumer food preferences, such as increasing demand for various cuisines globally, have also spurred the Thai food production industry over the past five years. As consumer demand rises and diversifies, food manufacturers are looking at automation to boost production and offer consumers more food choices, placing Thailand’s food industry at the forefront of Industry 4.0. 

While there are different automation technologies available, certain options are gaining traction as they greatly simplify the automation process while offering enhanced benefits. Collaborative robots (cobots) – robots designed to work sidebyside with people – is one such technology. 

Offering a Helping Hand

With multiple benefits on offer, cobots are a valuable automation tool. As Thailand looks to strengthen its position as a world leader in the food industry, manufacturers can turn to cobots to reduce production cost, increase productivity through optimisation of processes to stay competitive, all while maintaining worldclass quality standards.

Compared to traditional robots, cobots have enhanced inbuilt safety features, making it perfectly safe for people to work in close proximity with the cobots. These safety features eliminate the need for fencing and bulky barriers (subject to risk assessments). Their ergonomic design also makes them lightweight and compact, and enable cobots to operate even within small and confined spaces. 

Cobots are userfriendly, easy to program and easy to use. This allows them to be integrated into any existing application, regardless of the production type or size, creating endless possibilities for robotic automation across industries. 


Automating the Industry

While automation adoption is generally associated with high investments, cobots allow for modular implementation – automating selected processes – to achieve progressive automation leading to increased profits. Through this approach the company can incrementally reinvest the additional profits to further automate and maximise profits. 

Cobots have found their way into food manufacturing industries around the world. Their precision, flexibility and safety make them capable of handling different tasks, ranging from simple pickandplace and palletising applications, to aiding in testing and development. 

Time is of the essence for manufacturers of perishable produce who aim to seal in the freshness and prolong the lifespan of their products. 

This reduces food wastage while allowing the products to be shipped over longer distances to more customers, increasing the manufacturers’ revenue stream. 

At Atria, a Northern European manufacturer of gourmet food products for convenience markets and retail chains, Universal Robots’ UR5 and UR10 cobots are used to label, pack and palletise fresh food products. 

By automating their production lines with cobots, Atria achieved higher quality output and was able to prepare an average of 228 items per hour for delivery. 

The ability to easily redeploy the cobots back and forth between packaging food and labelling packages also reduced downtime significantly – from six hours to 20 minutes – allowing Atria to supply fresh goods to customers at a competitive price. 

Using cobots in packaging also enabled the manufacturer to reduce carton waste by 25 per cent. Overall the company achieved considerable cost savings, reaping a substantial return on investment (ROI). 

Cobots have also been proven useful in freeing employees from mundane or potentially dangerous tasks. 

In one of the largest sugar factories in Europe, cobots have been deployed in the sugar analysis process to inspect and analyse 80,000 sugar beet samples during production. 

The cobots scan barcodes and pick up around 45,000 containers with sugar beet samples for analysis, from scales to filters and back again. 

This process is performed by a gripper and a barcode scanner attached to the end of the cobot |arm. 

Offering precision and accuracy, the cobots helped employees reduce mistakes by ensuring consistency while reducing the amount of physical effort required to carry out certain tasks. With cobots performing the repetitive tasks, employees can be redeployed to take on more stimulating and higherlevel responsibilities such as process optimisation.

The application of cobots has proved useful in ensuring hygienic food processing environments which require sterile conditions. This minimises the likelihood of food contamination that can result in costly product recalls and leave a lasting negative impact on a brand’s reputation.

Cobots can also perform a particular task around the clock when required, allowing businesses to maximise operational efficiencies and reduce production downtime. In the manufacturing sector, the deployment of cobots has shown an increase of as much as 30 per cent in output per employee.

The Way Forward

Cobots are a viable investment for longterm business sustainability and growth. Be it packaging, labelling or scanning, cobots play an integral role in transforming the food and beverage industry. 

They can offer Thai food manufacturers a helping hand in automating production processes, delivering increased efficiency and productivity to help the country maintain its status as the Kitchen of The World, and to become the world’s food innovation hub.