Pick and place. Lift and set. Repeat. When it comes to working in a bakery or snack operation, manual tasks can make for a long, dreary day — and it’s the perfect environment for creating a high-turnover workforce. 

That’s why robots and collaborative robots — or cobots — are becoming increasingly popular in bakeries and snack operations.

The International Federation of Robotics noted that the US food and beverage industry added more than 3,400 robots, or 25% more, in 2021. In total, the federation estimated that global robot installations were expected to grow by 10% to almost 570,000 units in 2022.

“Think of cobots as doing all of the dull, dirty, dangerous and repetitive tasks,” explained Jamie Bobyk, marketing manager, Apex Motion Control. “This allows you to repurpose your production team to perform less dangerous, more motivational tasks.”

More than five years ago, greater efficiency and higher capacity were the most important drivers for robotics in the packaging arena, observed Felix Pang, sales engineer, ABI Ltd. During the past three years with COVID-19 disruptions, the greater focus has been on overcoming labor shortage challenges.

Some robotic companies like the AAA20 Group saw up to a 50% jump in requests for robotics last year.

“The labor shortage was the major driver of the automation trend in the bakery sector,” said Karen Mallouk, co-founder, AAA20. “Supply chain issues, however, have slowed down the implementation of automation, as customers have been ready to adopt it but have faced difficulties in obtaining the robotic machines due to shortages in electronic components.”

The emphasis on labor issues has also impacted the way bakeries calculate return on investment (ROI). 

“The biggest change is the way that companies are thinking about it,” said Craig Souser, president and chief executive officer, JLS Automation. “Most have extended their payback timeline due to labor shortages and many are factoring in lost revenue and profit when lines can’t be adequately staffed for full or partial shifts, which can dramatically impact the ROI equation.”

Today’s ROI formulas now include the weighted cost of employees along with the inability to produce enough snacks or baked goods because of workforce woes.

“The conversations we are having in the food arena these days aren’t necessarily focused on increasing capacity in the short term, but rather on the ability to run at capacity without needing to rely on human labor,” said Harley Green, strategic business director at Soft Robotics.

When comparing robotics to the use of traditional mechanical automation, the two greatest benefits are the maintenance savings a robotic arm provides and the flexibility in what it can do, noted Rick Hoskins, CEO, Colborne Foodbotics.

“A robotic arm has more than 80,000 hours mean time between failures with limited to no preventive maintenance required,” he explained. “This is very impressive when you consider the same process automated mechanically could require hundreds of hours of maintenance and downtime in a year. Related to flexibility, the ability to fine tune a motion profile in a given automation process is priceless when it comes to driving operating efficiency to its maximum potential.

“There is infinite flexibility in the programming of a robotic arm that mechanical automation will not allow,” he added. “Even if this means an extra 3% to 5% in overall efficiency, this has tremendous impact on the bottom line over the life of a project.”

Michael Cothran, north central sales manager, BluePrint Automation (BPA), pointed out that the large footprint and original investment pose the greatest limitations for robotics. 

Depending on the project’s complexity, robots might have trouble fitting in an allotted space. BPA, he stated, has developed its robot frames to house all controls and electronics to fit in as many places as possible.

“Likewise, the initial investment of a robotic system can be a tough pill for some companies to swallow,” he said. “However, the beauty of a robotic system is once it’s in place, it shows up to work every day. Robotics help cut down on the menial and repetitive tasks that lead to high staff turnover because of poor ergonomics and boredom. The modularity of robotic systems means you can add capacity in the future.”

Mr. Souser noted the advantages of robotics are well-documented.

“They show up to work every day, they are highly repeatable, don’t get tired or change how they do their work, and are not asking for more money after the initial investment,” he said.

The limitations, he suggested, include not being infinitely variable and adaptable like people, although new deep-learning technology is helping them adapt and learn.

“The human ability to adjust quickly allowing for changeovers or new products is hard to compete with when there are either lots of SKUs and configurations to deal with or there are new SKUs frequently,” Mr. Souser pointed out. “The same strengths and limitations apply whether it’s product production or packaging. Handling of delicate products has definitely improved due to advanced gripper development. Variety packs are pretty easily handled by a few experienced vendors. Improved vision systems have helped as well as more advanced product handling systems.”

Robotics also provide greater accuracy and repeatability leading to higher reliability, less waste and less potential downtime. They also reduce direct human contact with food, decreasing contamination risks, said Alexandre Goasmat, robotics product manager, ABI Ltd.

“Preventing workers from injuries and avoiding carrying a high payload are other key advantages for industrial bakers,” he said.

Before integrating robotics into a bakery, Mr. Green said, make sure the staff is well trained on how to run and maintain the equipment. Product inconsistency also can create a challenge.

“As consistent as most baked goods are, they still have some amount of variability and having a system that can handle that is very important,” he said. “You don’t want to have issues because your system didn’t account for this.”

When it comes to baking, why not let the machines do all the heavy lifting and boring work? Using cobots and robots will also make employees’ jobs easier and allow them to take on new tasks that bring back many happy returns in more ways than one.

This article is an excerpt from the April 2023 issue of Baking & Snack. To read the entire feature on Robotics, click here.