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Getting Robotics Right: Implementation in Food

View profile for Martin Jinks
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The robotics industry is one of rapid growth and innovation within the food sector.  The benefits for productivity, health and safety and profit increase are definitely appealing, but it’s crucial that food businesses do not ‘run before they can walk’ when it comes to implementation.

As tedious as it can be, carrying out tests with prototypes before investing vast sums of money will pay off in the long run. Carry out a small-scale prototype project to prove the concept and pay back before undertaking the larger project and assess your potential ROI (return on investment) before pitching it to your board.

Remember that any testing programme should include post-installation performance testing to prove the in-operation reliability (uptime) of the installed plant.

Ask yourself, ‘where are we losing money?’, ‘which areas of the manufacturing process present the most risks?’ and ‘how can we be more productive?’ There is very little point in adding robotics into an area which is already performing at optimum levels - go for the low-hanging fruit and automate in areas where there is a large, low-skill labour-saving to be had with repetitive tasks such as weighing ingredients by hand.

Don’t get left in the lurch and blinded by cheap prices. Remember - you always get what you pay for, so use an experienced supplier with strength both financially and with in-depth resources for installation and post-installation support. Unless you are an experienced operator, contract on a turn-key basis with a supplier capable of handling projects of the scale envisaged. You should require the supplier to undertake a computer model simulation of the proposed solution where the interactions are complex.

Know which of your products are to be handled and be realistic in what you aim to achieve. Automation is generally much less flexible than manual operations and not as capable of reacting to last-minute changes. Set down the key deliverables in written form in an “Employer’s Requirements” document.

Be realistic with timescales – leave time for extensive testing and “sea trials” as well as growth in the experience of the operational team. Under-promise and over-deliver to the business.

Ensure your operational team has the right skill mix – operating automation requires a calm and analytical approach to spot issues and address them as they arise. Shouting at a robot or software engineer seldom helps. Bring experienced operational staff (or consultants) into key positions both for the planning/installation period and for long-term operation.

  • Getting the right insurance coverage could be your saving grace should something go horribly wrong, such as inadequate foundations. Use the below as a checklist to make sure you’re covered …
  • Ensure the supplier (and other professionals) holds suitable professional indemnity insurance in case the worst should happen during the defects liability/latent defects liability period.
  • Consider site specific insurance. Will you insure or rely on the supplier’s standard insurances with you as client named as a joint insured?
  • Contract up-front to fix costs for both the installation period and long-term maintenance, including software support from the supplier.
  • Negotiate milestone payments with the supplier with sufficient cash held back to ensure a strong financial incentive to complete the project. Use performance bonds, advance payment guarantees or retention bonds to back this up.
  • Ensure business-critical software is deposited on escrow in case of any problems with the supplier during the maintenance period.
  • Ensure clarity on any necessary modifications within the upstream business software and the relevant interfaces.
  • The maintenance contract should include key performance indicators with an appropriate bonus/liquidated damages regime aligned with business requirements.