As the World comes to terms with the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, we continue to learn more about how best to fight this highly infectious virus and put in place procedures to ensure that onward transmission is reduced wherever possible.
As the different economies start to emerge from the recent lockdown, we are also now beginning to see some local, yet significant new outbreaks. Some of these have been within large meat processing facilities, where groups of people work together in a cold and noisy factory. It appears that the combination of having to raise your voice to be heard over the machinery, close working conditions and a chilled environment are a catalyst for the spread of this virus.
In this article CME’s Technical Manager Ian Marks explains why the introduction of automation in environments such as this can play a significant role in reducing risk for operators, whilst at the same time, improve quality and productivity for the business.
Manufacturing companies of all types have implemented changes to working practices for employees to maintain social distancing and create a safe working environment for all. These procedures will differ from one company to the next and also across different job roles. In an office environment, where each individual has their own dedicated work-space and where they do not “share” equipment or tools it is much easier to maintain the disciplines required.
In food processing there are of course very high hygiene standards, however the tasks being carried out on the factory floor can often mean that operators must work closely, side by side, or face each other on the production line. In normal circumstances this has never been a problem but the COVID virus thrives in such environments and as we have started to see, can take its toll rapidly.
In addition to the health risks for operators, a plant which has to operate at a reduced rate or even shut down repeatedly for extended periods may itself be at risk of permanent closure.
Introducing automation and robotics within a food processing environment will bring a number of tangible production benefits, whilst maintaining the highest hygiene levels and alleviating the risks associated with virus transmission. One example of this is the precision robotic meat processing cell developed by CME Limited, which incorporates robots from Stäubli’s new HE range, and which is one of the most hygienic on the market.
The company’s Ian Marks explains: “ Our HFPC 120 cell has been designed with EHEDG’s (European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group) exacting standards in mind and utilises a modular approach allowing the cell to be customised in a way that matches the requirements of each customer’s food processing line. The system is capable of handling and packing a diverse range of products at up to 120 picks per minute per module including: meat products, fish, cooked or baked products and will enhance packaging productivity levels as well as reducing headcount and cost.”
The ability of today’s robot systems to handle product at high speeds whilst operating in low temperature environments makes them the ideal solution to meat product handling and packaging applications. Ian Marks continues: “ We selected Stäubli’s HE robotic arms for this system as they are recognised as the market leader thanks to their compliant and unique design, unmatched technical performance and ability to completely eliminate bacterial contamination risks.”
In addition to the consistent hygiene standards which manufacturers can realise from the introduction of automated product handling and packaging systems, there are other benefits. Automating these tasks reduces the reliance on manual labour, which in some areas of the country is in short supply, allowing manufactures to maintain high and predictable productivity levels. Also, removing operators from what can be a challenging working environment eliminates the need for large quantities of disposable personal protection equipment. The UK’s track record on the use of robotics is, with the exception of the automotive sector, very poor by comparison to other industrial nations. Statistics from the International Federation of Robotics released in 2019 showed the UK ranking 22nd with a density of just 85 robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees. Germany and Japan by comparison had figures of 322 and 308 respectively. If ever there was a time for the UK to embrace these technologies surely it is now.
There is no doubt that automation and robotics can play a key role in the fight against this virus, helping to safeguard the health of individuals by removing them from areas of high risk and at the same time reduce the risk of factory shut-down by inhibiting the potential for virus transmission in production areas.