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Take up of robotic technology in the food sector is set to steadily increase as processors are forced to seek further efficiency gains and demand could challenge that of the automotive industry within a decade, according to FoodProductionDaily.com.

Citing the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), the report said by the end of 2009 there were over 23,000 robots operational within the UK food industry – just 3% of the global total. The automotive industry led the way on almost 364,000 units, followed by the electrical and electronics sector on 144,000 and 113,000 in the plastics and chemical industry. The metal industry had around 98,000 units in use.

In Europe, Germany, Italy and France have the greatest rates of robotic take up in the food sector. In 2009, German processors installed around 600 systems; over 300 were fitted in Italy, while French companies bought nearly 250. UK firms purchased fewer than 100, about half the number compared to their Spanish counterparts.

The recent economic recession had a devastating effect on the robotics industry – but conversely may have resulted in some longer term benefits for the food and beverage sectors, Mike Wilson, president of the British Automation Robotics Association (BARA) was quoted saying by FoodProductionDaily.com.

The worldwide economic downturn saw robotic shipments slump by around 45% in 2009. Orders from the automotive industry crashed by 52%, while demand from the electronics sector fell by more than a third and sales to the metal and machinery industry tumbled by 64% , said the IFR in its World Robotics 2010 report.

But decline in orders from the food and beverage sector was far less marked with demand for new machinery dropping by just 10% to 3,300 units. This accounted for 5% of total supply.

Wilson believed the jump in the food sector’s market share of robotics, even over a relatively brief period of time, could have longer term benefits for the industry.

The 2009 recession saw the food sector increase its overall market share in the robotics industry and has become more important to suppliers.

Robotic and automation systems were not initially developed with food production in mind. Equipment did not routinely include features that are essential in food processing plants – such as washdown capability and clean design to eliminate dirt traps.

The nature of the systems is that they work best where there is uniformity of size and shape in the products. Food does not generally have this characteristic which means that more expensive vision and handling need to be included – which has cost implications.

The greatest takeup in robotics by the food industry is during palletizing of finished packaged. But the robotics sector is now adapting to the general needs of the food and beverage industries and is developing high speed picking and packing systems for processing lines, the report said.

There is universal agreement in the robotics sector that the food and drinks industry is a fertile growth market for their products.

The food sector has the biggest potential for growth in robotics and within ten years it could be reaching levels approaching those of the automotive industry, Wilson, president of BARA said.

“The increasing importance of food safety is another important issue. If you can get people off the food processing line and reduce human contact with the product, you immediately cut the risk of contamination. Robotic systems offer this opportunity.”

But while he believed the change would be evolutionary rather revolutionary, the improved efficiencies for those that invested in the technology would spur ever-greater take up as companies fought to remain competitive.

“Companies that do invest in robotics and do it well are those that will be able to compete in the long term. And if you want to be able to compete in the long term then you have to progress – particularly if your competitors are doing it,” he said. – Source: Food Production Daily.com

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