LAS VEGAS — In the world of food packaging and processing, robotics has emerged as a major player. It started in palletizing, but food manufacturers, including bakers and snack producers, are finding new ways to incorporate the technology, and they’re discovering new variables that impact their return on investment (R.O.I.).

In The Forum, a new interactive feature at PACK EXPO, held Sept. 21-25 in Las Vegas, attendees learned about PMMI’s most recent research from Donna Ritson, president, DDR Communications, pertaining to the use of robotics in food packaging and processing.

In the study, titled “Robotics 2019,” DDR explored reasons why food manufacturers are turning toward robotics for automation solutions.

“Robotics is in significant transformation,” Ms. Ritson said. “It’s significantly changing manufacturing now and into the future.”

The report covered innovation, implementation, impact and imagination.

“What we learned is that robotics is no longer a ‘tool,’” Ms. Ritson noted. “It’s becoming a force that is driving change in this industry.”

Because the technology is changing at such a rapid pace and can impact so many facets of food production, the session “Robotics: Identifying Applications and Justifying the Investments,” was designed to be an interactive experience with Ms. Ritson as a moderator.

“What are the hurdles?” she asked the audience, noting that in the PMMI report, DDR interview subjects included end users of robotics, co-packers, robotic manufacturers, OEMs, technology providers, software developers and robotics experts. “We asked, ‘What do you need to overcome to help you implement more robotics?’”

The Top 2 hurdles were justifying the R.O.I. and lack of internal expertise. The next biggest hurdle was identifying applications.

Next, she posed a question to the audience, which consisted of food producers, pharma manufacturers, produce distributers, OEMs and others. She asked forum participants to share thoughts on the top applications where robotics could improve their operations. The goal was to facilitate ideas that attendees could take to the show floor to search for solutions from exhibitors.

Attendees included palletization, especially in terms of labor savings, as well as feeding 3D objects and handling hazardous materials or allergens as areas where robotics can be incorporated into manufacturing.

A lack of skilled labor is a common theme in manufacturing across all industries, and many participants noted that robotics can not only help fill the labor gap but also become a tool for attracting new types of employees who have experience in robotic technology.

The report also addressed the variables that impact the R.O.I. of robotics implementation.

“Some respondents said they saw R.O.I. in four months, and others said it took up to two years,” Ms. Ritson said. “That’s a long span if you’re trying to get a robot into your manufacturing.”

Variables identified in the study were also common among participants. They included reduced labor costs, increased throughput, total cost of ownership, improved quality and reduced waste, decreased worker injuries, and measurable uptime.

“Through this type of forum, attendees might be able to identify new ideas or opportunities where they hadn’t thought of robotics at all,” Ms. Ritson said. “It can at least help move toward more automation in scenarios where labor is missing.”

PACK EXPO also featured a Robotics Zone, where exhibitors showcased their robotics technology in action.