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Q&A: Robotics and Automation with Intelligrated's Matt Wicks

Food Manufacturing recently spoke with Matt Wicks, Vice President, Product Development, Manufacturing Systems, at Intelligrated about robotics and automation in the food manufacturing industry.

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in the July/August 2015 issue of Food Manufacturing

Food Manufacturing recently spoke with Matt Wicks, Vice President, Product Development, Manufacturing Systems, at Intelligrated about the topic of robotics and automation in the food manufacturing industry.

Q. What food manufacturing applications are best suited to robotic automation? Why?

A. The robotic automated solutions generally involve either item packing or case handling applications that lend themselves to the dexterous abilities of robots. Advancements in tooling, motion and vision are enabling robots to handle products that have traditionally only been able to be handled by human workers. The integration of robotics and traditional palletizing equipment also provides food manufacturers the flexibility of robotics while leveraging the speed and automation of traditional palletizers.

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Q. What robotic technology is currently most widely adopted in food manufacturing?

A. There is no “one” robot that solves all the challenges presented to food manufacturers. When deciding what type of robot to utilize, there are a variety of factors to consider, including speed and rates of the overall solution, handling characteristics of the products such as size, shape and weight, and space constraints of the application. Generally speaking, delta and scara robots are used for picking and placing, while articulated arm robots are used for case handling and palletizing. Delta and scara robots are ideal choices for use in applications that demand quick picking and placing of small items. The articulated arm robots are ideal for use in larger and more heavy-duty applications including case packing larger items or handling full cases for palletizing. Equipped with customized tooling, articulated arm robots are capable of simultaneously handling multiple cases or layers.

Q. What robotic technology do you see gaining traction in food environments in the future?

A. Advancements in the robotic tooling industry will continue to drive new applications. Technologies such as 3D printing provide robotic integrators with additional flexibility to customize tooling to suit the needs of individual applications. Material advancements, such as soft robotics, enable more adaptable and compliant tooling which also broadens opportunities to leverage robotics and improve overall picking reliability. In addition, integration of vision technology continues to drive new opportunities. For example, advancements in sensor technology and machine vision algorithms are pushing the envelope of many applications to promote solutions for bag and case depalletizing, and other purposes that are more unstructured than traditional palletizing.

Q. What robotic solutions are available to help food manufacturers overcome current challenges, such as in-store displays or variety packs?

A. One of the challenges food manufacturers currently face is how to fulfill custom order pallets. Intelligrated offers a wide variety of robotic and material handling equipment solutions including robotic mixed-load palletizing and shuttle storage systems to help overcome these challenges. We have also implemented robotic solutions to address the creation of store-ready variety packs. Creation of this solution involved the integration of multiple types of technologies, including robotic depalletizing, customized robotic tooling for item handling, conveyance and sortation, and robotic palletizing. It is important for food manufacturers to understand that the robot is a key component in the overall solution, but the integration of the robot into a seamless solution is equally as critical. Additionally, the use of hybrid robotic palletizers are ideal for applications with reduced primary or secondary packaging.

Q. What’s on the horizon for robotic solutions in the food industry?

A. Advancements in robotics include the advent of collaborative robotics, which allow robots to function in the same work space as people without the need for fencing and traditional safety systems. Although much slower and lighter duty than industrial robotic arms, collaborative arms can be deployed for a lower cost of entry, effectively bridging the gap between a manual system and a fully-automated solution.