Robotics at Frito-Lay: Flexibility, adaptability needed
A robotics expert, formerly lead robotics engineer at General Motors, told experts at the Robotics Industry Forum, AIA Business Conference, and MCA Business Conference, in Orlando, Fla., on Jan. 19, that the automotive industry can teach the rest of the world a lot about effective use of robotics. The food and beverage industry, though, doesn’t have robotics labs like automakers do, requiring greater cooperation with robotic suppliers and system integrators to make systems more flexible, adaptable, and easier to use, explained Terrence Southern, Frito-Lay North America, senior supply chain engineer. Southern, who now moves potato chips and Doritos through a plant instead of Hummers and Volts, discussed automation opportunities at Frito-Lay, part of PepsiCo Inc. (NYSE: PEP).
Noting key differences, at GM there are approximately 500 robots per plant, helping to build three or four vehicles per plant with varied layouts. At Frito-Lay there are 20 to 30 robots, 200 stock keeping units (SKUs) per plant, with a lot of layout duplication and opportunities for many more robots, perhaps 300 more over the next five years, Southern suggested.
Same goals, new approach
How can the industry accelerate savings related to efficiency and safety that robots bring? The food and beverage industry has few robot engineers, Southern explained. “We’re experts in seasoning potato chips. For robotic expertise, we’re looking for a renewed approach, with innovation, flexibility, and greater agility.”
Simpler robotic interfaces, more like an Apple iPad, would be extremely useful. “When will I be able to program a robot on my iPhone?” he asked.
“Robot engineers are experienced in robotics, machine vision, motion, and control systems. I’ve successfully programmed seven manufacturers’ robots,” Southern said, but having automation experience doesn’t necessarily translate into understanding robotic programming code or capabilities. Robots need to align with the workforce of tomorrow, he noted.
“The robotic supplier shouldn’t have to get on a plane to take the robot to the ‘home’ position,” he said. Robotic system integrators and suppliers also need to understand that consumer product goods (CPG) and food and beverage industries need flexibility, agility, floor space savings, more efficient processes, facility safety, process accuracy, and flexible work cells to deal with high variation in product type.
“We cannot keep buying new machines for each product,” he explained.
The vision is to create a no-touch factory from raw materials to shipping for processing, casing, palletizing, pallet transfer, storage, and truck loading—while increasing speed and making product change-over faster, with easier mixing and matching of pallets.
“We’re already doing palletizing, but casing is tough,” Southern said. Storage and truck loading also is difficult because of wide variability in package and pallet sizes.
Finally, all involved need to consider robotics as a platform, not just a piece of equipment, in a lifecycle model, considering not only capital costs but support, maintenance, and other factors for higher predictability and repeatability, he said.
Frito-Lay robotic palletizing requires 50% less space, 25% lower cost, and 50% fewer install hours than prior methods. He hopes to extend palletizing benefits to other areas, including using machine vision to inspect and robotics to sort pallets with defects. Unloading pallets from trucks is particularly challenging because loads shift.
In the next five years, Southern said, expects Frito-Lay is considering additional robotic investments in 25-30 North American facilities, and globally, as well. “New metrics include getting the total lifecycle costs right, making systems plug and play so they work and can be up and running in two to three days, along with world-class service and performance. We want to take a global approach, look at what people do, and mimic what they do for faster robot learning. Robots also help with better use of space and skilled labor shortages. We’ll start a project at a test center first, pilot a department, and then do a national rollout. And we won’t do a project if we cannot apply it to at least 10 facilities,” he said. Southern said, “Compared to fixed automation, robotics can offer greater flexibility and lower costs, but regarding applications and operations, many companies don’t even know what they don’t know.”
– Mark T. Hoske is content manager, CFE Media, Control Engineering. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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– Robotics, vision, motion groups progress in 2012
– Vogl named chairman for motion control group