CHICAGO — Robotic packaging systems are in high demand and bakers have no reason to fear these automation systems given the latest advances in hardware and software.
That was the message communicated by Craig Souser, chairman and chief executive officer of JLS Automation, on Feb. 26 at the American Society of Baking’s BakingTech in Chicago.
He said there are still some reservations about the technology, despite the demand for it. He said bakers often think robotics will be too complicated and support systems too involved to be user-friendly inside a busy bakery. However, both of those are far from the truth given today’s technology, Mr. Souser said.
“We always hear, ‘We’ve never used a robot before, we’re afraid of them,’“ he said. “We get that and there are certainly plenty of horror stories to go around about failed installations, but it’s often not about the robot itself. It’s about the way it was deployed.”
Today’s robotics suppliers are better than ever at guaranteeing a smooth transition to any sort of robotic pick-and-place packaging machine, Mr. Souser explained. The key to improving the technology has been the simplification of the technology.
Integrated machine controls available today reduce complexity by offering machines with fewer components and interfaces. Robots are now much easier to use, both in operations and in maintenance. Advances in technologies also have reduced the electrical footprint for many machines.
“This enables an unskilled operator to be able to run robotic machines and allows them to change recipes without having to rely on the OEM,” Mr. Souser said.
He added that companies like Microsoft and Google have improved their operating systems to offer new levels of support and simplicity. User interfaces on machines are now HTML based and look more like a smart phone than a complex manufacturing system.
JLS Automation and other suppliers are also able to use Google Glasses or other camera systems with augmented reality (AR) to provide technical support so supplier technicians can troubleshoot from a distance. This allows unskilled operators to fix lines with the help of skilled technicians who can see exactly what the operator is seeing, all without the technician needing to travel to a plant.
“The intent is to get machines running in minutes, not hours or days,” he said. “We can do virtually everything other than move the operator’s hand for them.”
The new technologies instantly allow technicians to speak to and interface with operators, and through AR show them what on the machine needs fixing and how to do it. Mr. Souser said these types of support systems are, and will be, a reality in the baking industry sooner rather than later.
“We believe that three to five years from now every baker is going to have technology like this,” Mr. Souser predicted.
With today’s labor shortage and workforce gap, that’s something to embrace, not fear, he said.