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Robotics

Human impact: Role of workers with robotics

A manufacturer that saves money on labor by using automation can increase investments and demand and create more opportunity for employment. Factory floor workers can manage tasks that require skills that automation cannot replicate, leading to further innovation.

By Nigel Smith February 20, 2020
Courtesy: TM Robotics

Not every food manufacturer is an automation convert, despite the opportunities. The food manufacturing industry tends to fall into two camps: Those who see automation as an opportunity to improve processes and a smaller minority who perceive it as a threat to business.

Considering the widespread data that proves the potential productivity rewards of automation, why are some manufacturers still hesitant? Common complaints revolve around reputation and fewer jobs for humans.

Will using robots mean fewer human jobs?

There’s a common misconception that increased automation leads to fewer jobs for human employees — and some manufacturers are concerned investing in automation will reflect poorly on their brand. However, history proves this hasn’t slowed down the uptake of robotics and automation in the past.

Nearly 500 years ago, Queen Elizabeth I denied a patent for an automated knitted machine. The argument was the equipment would deprive young women of employment. Regardless of the denial of patent, factories adopted the machine anyway, in a bid to increase productivity.

This productivity boom resulted in higher profits and greater opportunities for employment, with these factories employing four times as many workers a century later. Looking to today’s food industry, the scenario is the same.

How will human roles change?

Like the weaving process required for textile manufacturing, many tasks in food manufacturing and processing can easily be automated, such as loading, unloading, picking, placing and bagging. Today’s robotics equipment can complete these tasks quicker and more efficiently than a human employee could.

Those producing and distributing robotics have a vested interest in food processors and manufacturers, and their investments in industrial automation. However, that’s not the only reason to encourage the use of automation in these facilities. The industry needs to shift from labor-intensive production, to production focused on enhancing the knowledge and skills of its employees.

Investment in robotics is on the rise. For those not investing, their competitors will as all manufacturers should be trying to ensure they don’t get left behind. Rather than focusing on potential job losses caused by automation, manufacturers should instead ask how they can use newly freed human resources to their advantage.

A manufacturer that saves money on labor by using automation can lower prices or generate more profit, which can increase investments and demand and create more opportunity for employment. Rather than completing menial and repetitive tasks, existing factory floor workers can manage tasks that require skills automation cannot replicate, leading to further innovation. [Editor’s note: Other options are to invest savings in research and development, increase human or capital investments (training or other upgrades) to create additional efficiencies and innovation.]

Does reputation figure into the decision? Europe’s food and drink industry doesn’t have the best reputation for its use of lower-cost labor, particularly in wealthy nations like the United Kingdom. U.S. food manufacturers employing migrant workers for 33% of staff, which is the second-highest industry in the U.S. that uses migrant workers.

Automation can help food industry workers increase productivity and lower risk. Courtesy: TM Robotics

Automation can help food industry workers increase productivity and lower risk. Courtesy: TM Robotics

By reducing the number of menial roles on the factory floor, reliance on imported labor is also reduced. Automation isn’t replacing jobs, but paving the way for better ones. It is vital that food manufacturers make this clear when deploying automation into their facilities.

Can automation lower accident risk?

Automation also improves the working environment for employees by reducing the likelihood of injuries. According to the Health and Safety Executive, a U.K. government agency for workplace safety, over 30% of injuries reported in the food and drink industry are related to manual handling. That’s a striking figure, considering approximately 120,000 people working in the sector are injured each year.

Many of the injuries are related to packaging, boxing and unboxing. Manual handling-related injuries include accidents that occur when packing products, pushing wheeled tacks, and stacking or unstacking containers such as boxes and crates. Such tasks are easily automated.

Take bin picking as an example. Using a six-axis robot with advanced 3D vision software, the bin picking process becomes fully automated with cycle times as fast as 0.7 seconds. Without automation, human operators would be required to manually pick items from the box and place them onto the next part of the manufacturing process. This is a seemingly safe task, but it carries manual handling and repetitive injury risks.

Automation has been applied to help with robotic box-opening solution. One such system can automatically measure the size of every case or box that comes into the facility and automatically find the programmed cut lines.

The machine is capable of cutting up to 750 boxes per hour without requiring a human employee to handle a blade. By automating this process, food manufacturers can decrease the chance of employees being cut or injured by a blade while on the factory floor. The more processes that are automated means the lesser the likelihood of injuries.

Automation has been an essential part of manufacturing since the first six-axis robots were introduced to automotive production in the 1960s. Since then, a growing number of sectors have embraced the technology, including food processors.

Moving products is among tasks automation can readily perform. Courtesy: TM Robotics

Moving products is among tasks automation can readily perform. Courtesy: TM Robotics

As automation and robotics become more affordable and accessible, we’re likely to see an even more widespread industry acceptance from food manufacturers. Automation skeptics and enthusiasts alike need to ensure their facilities do not get left behind with efficient robotic implementations.

Nigel Smith is managing director of TM Robotics, a distributor of six-axis industrial robots and partner of Toshiba Machine. Edited by Mark T. Hoske, content manager, Control Engineering, CFE Media, mhoske@cfemedia.com.

KEYWORDS: Robotics, food processing, productivity

Robotics can lower risk of injuries and create jobs.

Automation efficiencies create more opportunities.

Bin picking and box opening robots decrease human exposure to repetitive-motion injuries and blades.

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TM Robotics, a distributor of industrial robots and partner of Toshiba Machine, has installed thousands of robots in factories, including North and South America, India, Russia, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Australia. In partnership with Toshiba Machine, TM Robotics offers three categories of robots; 6-axis, SCARA, and Cartesian. These are designed and built in-house. TM Robotics also provides training and support services for industrial and commercial applications.

See robotics research from Control Engineering and Plant Engineering, part of CFE Media and Technology.


Nigel Smith
Author Bio: Nigel Smith is managing director at TM Robotics, a Toshiba Machine partner.