Robots in the food industry: “Almost the entire industry is asking for automation”

Robots are taking on more and more tasks in the food industry – no longer just in palletizing and depalletizing, but also in the handling and packaging of products such as meat, cheese or baked goods. Dieter Rothenfußer, Portfolio Manager at KUKA, reveals the advantages of the automation and the solutions with which KUKA supports the food industry.

What signals are customers from the food industry sending?

Dieter Rothenfusser, Portfoliomanager at KUKA.
Dieter Rothenfußer, Portfoliomanager at KUKA.

Dieter Rothenfußer: Almost the entire industry is asking for automation. While the beverage industry has been automating processes for a long time, be it with special machines or robot technology, we are currently experiencing great demand from food processing sectors such as convenience food, meat, sausage, or cheese processing. Corona has certainly accelerated this process. Many companies had to deal with lockdown measures or were overburdened with implementing safety concepts as quickly as would have been necessary.

Aren’t there concerns that automation will cost jobs?

On the contrary. The uniform response we receive is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find staff for production. In meat processing in particular, it is cold and damp, and employees are confronted with blood, offal and bones on a daily basis and also run the risk of injuring themselves with the sharp tools. Many migrate to other industries where working conditions are better. KUKA robots can take over monotonous or dangerous tasks and relieve staff so that they stay.

What makes KUKA a suitable partner for robot-based automation solutions in the food industry?

KUKA has been focusing on the food industry for 15 years. Initially, the focus was primarily on palletizing and depalletizing as well as packaging. Our extensive portfolio of palletizing robots with payloads ranging from 40 to 700 kilograms clearly sets us apart from the competition. At the same time, however, we began to look at where there was still more to automate – along the entire value chain, from the delivery of raw materials to product processing and logistics. We are now well positioned in this area and count over 1,000 companies from the food industry worldwide among our customers.

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What tasks does KUKA see as particularly urgent there right now?

In the sensitive area of primary food processing in particular, we will have to work intensively over the next few years on a portfolio of hygiene robots that can withstand the cleaning procedures and chemical cleaning agents that are customary in the industry. It is essential to follow the guidelines of the European Hygienic Engineering & Design Group (EHEDG) and to cooperate closely with cleaning agent manufacturers and end customers. No one who wants to develop machines or devices for the food industry can ignore the EHEDG guidelines. They provide clear specifications on what something has to look like and are now also regarded as a model for the industry in the USA. We have responded to these requirements: since the beginning of the year, the stainless steel version of the KR DELTA has been added to the KUKA portfolio. As a hygienic machine, the robot is particularly suitable for fast pick-and-place tasks involving raw foods such as fish sticks, cheese wedges or hamburger pads. Thanks to its stainless steel design, the use of FDA-certified components and the IP69 protection class, the robot meets the highest demands in terms of hygiene and cleanability.

Is KUKA also planning further developments, for example for food that is no longer raw or software solutions for the industry?

Yes, for example, by launching a complete robot portfolio with food-grade NSF H1 lubricants this year, we are responding to the increasing hygiene requirements in secondary food production areas as well. All robot axes, including the energy supply systems, are equipped with NSF H1 lubricants.

As the demand for automation increases, we must also address the need for simplified robot configuration and operation. Robot experts are rare at many sites. It is therefore all the more important that the benefits of particularly simple operation with the new iiQKA operating system and the associated ecosystem from KUKA also find their way into the food industry.

From meat processing to baked goods and dairy products – learn more about the possibilities of automation in the food industry on the KUKA website.

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