The latest investment offering for inspection industry disruptor Invert Robotics has closed after attracting considerable interest from a number of high net worth and institutional investors from across Australia and New Zealand.
The company provides non-destructive inspection services using state of the art mobile climbing robots. The climbing robots enable precise and accurate remote inspection of non-ferromagnetic surfaces such as stainless steel, carbon fibre, aluminium and glass. The company’s patented robots are installed with high definition cameras and sensor technology to allow for equipment to be assessed for maintenance and for preventative analysis on a remote basis. Inspectors are fed real-time video during the inspection that allows for immediate and highly accurate analysis.
The device is already being used by the major Australian and New Zealand dairy companies and co-operatives such as Fonterra, Synlait and Murray Goldburn, as well as a number of global food and beverage brands. It is also attracting interest across other sectors and throughout the food and beverage manufacturing industry in Europe and Asia such as FrieslandCampina and Heineken.
The Company has also captured the attention of those working in the lucrative aviation inspection market and is poised to make a European partnership announcement soon regarding its successful development of further advanced robot technology. The company is also looking at potential opportunities in the chemical industry, in addition to further work with energy, oil and gas companies.
Following an almost million dollar crowdfunding campaign through the Sydney-based platform Equitise, a further NZ$6.4 million has now been raised from a limited sophisticated private investor round. Shareholders now include the former CEO of Macquarie Group Ltd, Allan Moss, and Inception Fiduciary Pty Ltd.
These investments add to the considerable funding received from government and private venture capital sources soon after the company was founded by its now Chief Technical Officer, James Robertson.
Since 2015/2016, Invert Robotics has experienced exponential growth; for the 2018/19 Financial Year, its revenue is expected to further quadruple, with significant contributions from European operations.
“Unlike other inspection methods using dyes, drones and optical or laser devices, INVERT ROBOTICS’s technology provides 360-degree diagnostics and does so in up to half the time of traditional inspections”, said Invert Robotics’ Managing Director Neil Fletcher.
“The accuracy, efficiency and the value-adding environmental and safety benefits of robotic technology makes it an obvious choice as global consumer demand for product safety, brand integrity and transparency grows.”
Given the company’s rapid growth, in addition to its Australasian base in Christchurch, INVERT ROBOTICS have opened an office in the Netherlands and is poised to open premises to operate in Germany and Denmark.
A robotic liquid handling system at the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) is automating the screening of large numbers of malolactic bacteria strains.
Using miniaturised wine fermentations in 96-well microplates, the Tecan EVO 150 robotic system is screening bacteria for MLF efficiency and response to wine stress factors such as alcohol and low pH.
The bacteria are sourced from the AWRI’s wine microorganism culture collection in South Australia and elsewhere.
The robot can prepare and inoculate multiple combinations of bacteria strains and stress factors in red or white test wine and then analyse malic acid in thousands of samples over the course of the fermentation.
In one batch, for example, 40 bacteria strains can be screened for MLF efficiency and response to alcohol and pH stress in red wine, with over 6000 individual L-malic acid analyses performed.
The AWRI says that this high-throughput approach provides a quantum leap in screening capabilities compared to conventional MLF testing methods and can be applied to a range of other research applications.
Additionally, the phenotypic data obtained from this research is being further analysed with genomic information, which will identify potential genetic markers for the stress tolerances of malolactic strains.
Weighing 4,000 pounds (not far off two tonnes) and costing $US 25,000 (about $US 200,000 in today’s terms) the Unimate is also the antithesis of the apparently booming class of collaborative robots. Its step-by-step movements – put to use handling hot die castings and welding tasks – were driven by a primitive magnetic drum memory.
Comparatively elegant, cheap, safe to be around, and able to be programmed by line workers with no coding experience, the new co-bots couldn’t be more unlike their forbears.
They are most obviously “lightweight, easy-to-program and affordable,” Shermine Gotfredsen, General Manager, Asia Pacific (excluding China and India) for Universal Robots, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“It’s becoming very affordable for manufacturing – even the SMEs, not just the MNCs,” said Gotfredsen, of some of the almost plug-and-play robot options out there.
Perhaps the two best-known examples of collaborative robots are those made by Gotfredsen’s employer (headquartered in Denmark) and the Baxter Robot, made by the USA’s Rethink Robotics.
Both companies’ products have force sensing technology that mean they will not injure a person who stands in the path of a robot arm.
They generally work on a fixed base (cage-free) alongside humans, handle relatively small payloads, and can be easily programmed through a user-friendly HMI and by manipulating the robotic arm through a set of movements, meaning re-tasking is simple.
Last-month Swiss power and automation giant ABB chose the world’s premier industrial expo, Hannover Messe, to unveil its long-awaited, two-armed YuMi co-bot (which has its origins in the firm's Frida concept robot).
“A couple of years back you would’ve seen one or two robots in the collaborative robot space; now you find a dozen or more vendors that have robots that they’re certainly calling collaborative robots,” Jim Lawton, CMO of Rethink Robotics, told Manufacturers’ Monthly following the release of his company’s new Sawyer product.
The IFR’s figures put Asian robot sales at approximately 140,000 units last year, over 60 per cent of the world’s share. China in particular stood out, with 56,000 purchases (up 54 per cent from 2013).
“This region is a fast-growing region for industrial robots. and this quarter alone for the Asia Pacific region I am operating in, we have already had a 50 per cent growth this quarter compared to last quarter,” explained Gotfredsen.
“So, definitely! [laughs] Definitely it’s a very strong market.”
According to the ambitious Universal, it is on track to reach its goal of doubling revenues every year for 2014 – 2017, and launched a new tabletop product, the UR3, in March at Chicago’s Automate 2015 show.
He points to research from Boston Consulting Group suggesting at present there are around nine-tenths of manufacturing tasks that are not yet automated, and a chunk of these can now be tackled.
“This is such a huge and significant space,” he said.
“This is in the US what we call the Wild West. It’s largely uncharted territory.
“And so there will be a bunch of companies – like Rethink Robotics, like Universal Robots, and probably a handful of others – that are very rapidly innovating and bringing new, interesting collaborative robots to market.”
Explaining the boom
Though there is anecdotally a lot of interest in the category, hard, official details on sales aren’t here yet.
“[No,] because this application is just starting,” Gudrun Litzenberger, General Secretary at the IFR, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
“There are a lot of testing applications in various industries.”
The IFR did however agree that sales would likely increase in the future.
In general, sales are being driven by China, followed by South Korea. The automotive industry, which adopted the first factory robots, is still the most significant sector, followed by electronics.
To highlight, even within Australia, how heavily auto is represented in robot sales, consider that units purchased in Australia were 1,214 in 2012 and seemed to plummet to 323 in 2013.
The main reason in the 2012/2013 difference in volumes was the installation of Toyota’s engine plant in Altona in 2012, the IFR points out in its research.
Co-bot makers argue that their machines make productivity gains available to SMEs those which were previously only available to, say, big automotive companies.
Not every firm can budget and plan for a whole lot of money and time spent on integration if they decide they might want to invest in automation.
“When a manufacturer makes the decision that they want to go automate a task, they may need some robotic arms, some PLCs, a conveyor, wires, string them all together, they need various sensors, part positioning sensors and cameras and 3D sensors,” explained Lawton.
Then comes installation and coding and getting things running reliably. And then there’s error handling.
“That’s often multiple hundreds of hours of programming time that goes into just the error handling component of it,” he said.
The link between automation and productivity is an obvious one, and helps explain why China, with its rising wages, is investing so heavily in importing industrial robots. (It is also investing heavily in developing a robotics industry of its own. Around 16,000 of the robots sold last year in China were locally made.)
The flexibility of robots that can be relocated within a plant and quickly re-programmed for a different task is also suited to smaller companies that manufacture high-mix, low-volume goods.
“New solutions such as interfaces, control units and software allow diverse tasks to be automated even by people without any experience in robotics,” explained Litzenberger.
“This opens up new potential applications for medium-sized companies in diverse industries.”
It has not just been the smaller businesses buying lightweight robots, however. For example, Universal has already sold ten robots to one client alone, Boeing Australia.
Reshoring and robots
“The conversation has certainly changed now, and it’s still early days, but people are seeing that there’s some value there,” Rodney Brooks, CTO, chairman and founder of Rethink, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.
Brooks began Heartland (which later changed its name to Rethink) after noticing the low amount of automation within some parts of China, and simultaneously realised that the seemingly endless pool of labour available to those offshoring wouldn’t be there forever.
He sees the democratisation of industrial robots as something that will shrink supply chains and help bring a lot of manufacturing back closer to where items are consumed.
“It will be possible to do more manufacturing in more locations of the world where you don’t need that really specialised supply chain,” Brooks said.
Rethink believes that collaborative robots (it generally applies the term “interactive robots” to its Baxter) will be a major disruption in the manufacturing industry.
In a way that intuitive, user-friendly tools (think of the iPhone) have changed the way we work, robots with a little commonsense that can be used by just about anybody might be a tool that does the same thing.
Brooks often citesthe PC and the drastic (and overwhelmingly positive) changes it brought to the workplace, with Baxter having potential similarities for those in factories. In the way that a user doesn’t need to be a computer programmer to use a spreadsheet on a PC, a factory worker doesn’t need to be a programmer to use an interactive robot.
Litzenberger said that the “man-machine partnership” would be important in “advancing intelligent production visions (Industrie 4.0).”
“Here, user-friendly robots are opening up opportunities for automation in differing sectors,” she explained.
With all the possibility and maybe even a little hype around the collaborative robots out there, it’s probably reasonable to remind ourselves that they can’t do everything (and aren’t intended to).
Each model the vendors provide is different, to begin with, in terms of basic things like degrees of freedom, speed, repeatability and payload.
Different robots have different things they can do well, and things they can do poorly or not at all.
Also, where mobility for a robotic solution is needed, for example, a co-bot is the wrong tool for the job.
“What we have been particularly interested in are robots where you have mobility and you also have manipulation capabilities – in the case of Baxter, for example, it is fixed,” explained Elfes, Senior Principal Research Scientist & Science Leader Robotics, CSIRO, told Manufacturers' Monthly.
“AndI think different solutions have different applications."
There are situations where a standard, fixed robotic arm will absolutely make sense and will provide what is needed, and situations in which it will not.
Another limitation for all kinds of robots, and not just collaborative types, is dexterity.
Brooks, who is a former Professor of robotics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and one of the most celebrated roboticists of all time, concedes this.
“I’m hopeful that now people will start to explore dexterity more than they have in the last 40 years,” he said.
“And we’ll see if progress is made. But you can’t just order up progress on these things. It may take a few years yet before we have much dexterity.”
And in these early days of collaborative robots, actual applications out there in the field in Australia are limited. There have been ten Universal arms sold to Boeing, but there has only been a total of 50 sold in Australia overall.
Technological developments in aseptic packaging are bringing substantial efficiency benefits for the food and beverage processing industry, as well as delivering food safely to consumers.
The aseptic process involves sterilising the product and package individually, filling the package with the product, and then sealing the carton under sterile conditions without the product being reinfected by micro-organisms.
According to the technical director of Tetra Pak Oceania, Quan Brown, aseptic technology opens up many different markets due to the long shelf life of products without refrigeration. “The consumption growth of aseptic packages is on average five percent per year, and in some countries it’s as much as 10 percent,” he said.
“Technical advantages and higher speed in processing and packaging are increasing the interest in aseptic technology in the industry at a time when the requirements for product safety are growing.
“Whilst pasteurisation can be used to kill the bacteria in food that causes illness, it is considerably more difficult to kill spores that can be formed by certain bacteria. Therefore, Ultra High Temperature (UHT) is required with one or more separate heat treatment stages.
“The latest aseptic processing and packaging lines provide greater efficiency to help drive down costs. Tetra Lactenso Aseptic with OneStep technology, for example, is an all-in-one customisable system that simplifies food processing to cut running costs by up to 50 percent, and eliminates the need for pasteurisation and intermediate storage.
“In addition, advances in packaging systems such as the Tetra Pak iLine can reduce running costs by up to 40 percent.”
The Tetra PlantMaster system is an advanced scalable automation solution that is applicable for production of anything from flavoured milk and juice products, to whey powder and icecream, ensuring a high level of accountability and quality control.
Problems such as blockages and bottle-necks can be detected rapidly by this technology, and by mechanising most of the process, labour is minimised, accuracy is improved, and waste is reduced.
“Faster filling machines are enabling greater volumes of production and the Tetra Pak A3/Speed iLine is the fastest line available from Tetra Pak with a maximum production capacity of 24,000 packs per hour,” Brown says.
“Customers requiring a greater degree of flexibility have the option of the Tetra Pak A3/Flex, which allows for easy switching between cartons of different shapes and sizes.
Above: A Tetra Pak A3 Flex filling machine.
“Tetra Pak is also conducting field trials of new eBeam sterilisation technology for carton packaging which is designed to lower energy use, reduce carbon emissions, and support higher line capacities. When launched, eBeam will play a significant role in operation of the new Tetra Pak A3 filling machine for super high speed packaging.”
In addition to developing innovative technologies for its manufacturing customers, Tetra Pak has a focus on the increased consumer demand for packages with better environmental performance, and on cartons that can easily be used by people on the go and older people.
“An increasingly urbanised population is driving a need for portable aseptic products, so we are making developments to carton openings and offering cartons in different shapes and sizes, as well as designing packages that are easy to open for older people,” says Charles Vorrath, marketing director of Tetra Pak Oceania.
In the early 1980’s a radical bag-in-box technology was developed in Australia by one of the pioneer manufacturers of the iconic ‘wine cask’. The new method used a system of sealed membranes fitted to the filling port on the bag, providing a steam sterilisable and resealable interface between the sterile product supplied to the filling machine and the pre-sterilised bag interior.
The concept quickly gained acceptance as the system of choice for many of the major producers, particularly for critical low acid products such as dairy, coconut milk, biomedical, and delicate fruit and vegetable applications.
Bags to suit this system are now produced worldwide by several major flexible packaging manufacturers and range from two litre retail juice packs with a dispensing tap through to 1300kg multilayer high barrier bulk storage units.
In 2012, Engi-O was established in Melbourne to continue the development and manufacture of the aseptic filling machines and associated equipment for the ‘membrane port’ system and also a range of conventional non-aseptic filling equipment.
Ian Anderson, who is a consultant to Engi-O, is the inventor and original developer of the membrane port aseptic bag-in-box system. He brings over 30 years of food technology and engineering experience in the flexible packaging industry to the company.
Anderson says the company has retained alliances and mutual development arrangements with machine manufacturers in Europe and USA that also operate as Engi-O agents in those markets.
“Being independent, Engi-O is free to liaise with any bag manufacturer and any of the suppliers of upstream aseptic processing plant. Seamless control and mechanical integration between the process and packaging parts of any aseptic installation is essential for its safe and reliable operation,” he told Food magazine.
“For what is a relatively simple principle, aseptic processing and packaging can pose some quite complex issues in compliance with process safety requirements and legislated standards.
“Depending on the product application and country of installation, and particularly for critical low acid products such as in dairy, vegetable, meat, and biomedical applications, an individual machine may have to comply with vigorous ISO, CE, 3A, JIS, EHEDG, and other national standards of control and construction of the equipment. The whole installation may require validation to satisfy the strict requirements of organisations such as the USFDA.
“Engi-O is well versed in these issues and can adapt its bag-in-box filling technology to comply with specific regulations, as demonstrated by such recent diverse projects relating to Australian dairy, soymilk and fruit processors, a Canadian vegetable puree operation, and a New Zealand nutriceutical supplier.
“Aseptic bag-in-box is now a well-established segment of the industrial packaging spectrum, and the industry is turning its attention to new developments in processing technology.
“These include ultra-high pressure treatment, pulsed electric field sterilisation, microwave, electron beam, pulsed light, and other interesting concepts used alone or in combination to provide high quality sterile product to the filling machine.
“Our challenge is to be ready with the appropriate packaging and filling system as these developments become viable.”
Computer guru Bill Gates is credited with observing: 'Automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency'. In fact, automation can go beyond boosting efficiency to give food and beverage producers many other benefits, according to Automation Manager, Richard Cuthbert.
He says automation introduces value-building advantages along the supply chain – from the field, to the plant, and to the consumer.
"Automated processing and packaging systems connect the components in a factory by linking individual machines to a facility's central computer system for monitoring and controlling operations and collecting valuable data," Cuthbert says.
"This means operators have quick, easy access to a range of information, from ingredient and raw material intake, to the operating parameters of a machine on a specific filling line, to which pallet holds a particular batch of product.
"By bringing that information together in one place, rather than across separate sources, customers reap the benefits of consistent quality, increased safety, streamlined traceability and ultimately, brand protection."
Automated food packaging and processing systems give operators greater control over consistency, which means they can deliver safe, quality products time after time, Cuthbert says. Also, because equipment performance parameters can be easily monitored, plant managers can quickly spot a problem and correct it before faulty product is distributed.
Automation allows managers to monitor and have more control over processes, which filters down to further refinements and modification made by plant staff. Having the data and the power to make adjustments in one place means the time from incident and reaction is shortened significantly, and minor problems have less time to become major. In this manner, automation is a vast improvement over the old-fashioned method of recording data in electronic spreadsheets or paper records.
Keeping track of relevant product information—from raw material origins, to processing procedures, to packaging data, to distribution channels—is not just required by law, it's smart business practice, Cuthbert says. It can help manufacturers identify the exact problem and only remove the product they know is at risk. Automation and traceability not only increase consumer confidence—they keep recalls small, and out of the headlines. This can boost consumers' trust by giving them the ability to scan (via a laptop or smartphone) a package label to access a product's history, from farm to fork.
Maintaining quality, ensuring safety and facilitating traceability all tie into a manufacturer's key concern: maintaining a brand's good reputation. Automation facilitates the consistent quality, trouble-free production and transparency critical to keeping retailers and consumers satisfied with food and beverage products.
Haigh’s Chocolates will be the first in Australia to install a Baxter robot, which is designed make automation accessible and affordable to Australian Manufacturers.
Until now, production robots have been separated from people by protective cages, programmed by specialised engineers, and affordable by only large scale manufacturers.
Baxter, a ‘collaborative robot’ works alongside people uncaged to complete repetitive production tasks that are typically difficult or expensive to automate, freeing up human operators to focus on more value-added jobs,
Baxter was created by Adelaide born Rodney Brooks in 2012, who had a vision to make robotics more accessible, usable and practical. Baxter has fast become part of the fabric of the American manufacturing industry.
Pullman Learning Group is the regional distributor for the Baxter Robot and has appointed SAGE Automation as authorised integrator for the Baxter Manufacturing Robot in Australia. SAGE Automation CEO Adrian Fahey, sees the technology as an enormous opportunity for our manufacturing Industry, “It is putting automation into the reach of all manufacturers, enabling them to achieve new efficiencies and remain competitive”, he said.
“Baxter’s low-cost and high return provides a compelling alternative to offshoring by enabling manufacturers to ramp up production more cost effectively, protect intellectual property and create a more productive, satisfied workforce,” he said.
Baxter is intelligent and intuitive; any worker can simply teach Baxter how to carry out a required task, which is stored in its memory to perform again in the future. Furthermore, Baxter is mobile and can be retrained and deployed as required throughout a manufacturing facility.
Baxter works with sensors to provide one of the safety elements which enable Baxter to work collaboratively alongside people. Baxter’s face acknowledges when someone is now close by and also indicates where he is about to move.
When considering Baxter for a company, SAGE first undertakes a review of the current situation of their operations, considers which tasks could be completed by Baxter to optimise their effectiveness, and provides analysis and costing of how Baxter can be integrated and supported within their business. SAGE can also integrate Baxter with other control systems, and providing ongoing support and training.
The first industrial implementation of a Baxter robot in Australia will be at iconic South Australian, family owned chocolate maker Haigh’s Chocolates.
Chief executive of Haigh’s Chocolates Alister Haigh said “Haigh’s Chocolates is a proud South Australian manufacturer. We place great emphasis on service and the finest traditional chocolate making. Our vision is that the Baxter robot will enable us to grow our business and maintain our traditions as we increase employment and move employees to higher skilled activities.”
The project for Haigh’s is being supported by the Department of State Development’s Business Transformation Voucher Program, an initiative of the State Government’s Manufacturing Works strategy.
Manufacturing and Innovation Minister Kyam Maher said the project was recommended for funding based on its potential to improve Haighs’ manufacturing performance and expand production capability and diversity to meet the growing demand of local and export markets using high-tech processes.
“Technology is a powerful tool for business innovation, and when combined with the right business models has the potential to create and capture new value for existing manufacturers,” he said.
“Transforming South Australia’s economy will be built on the ability of manufacturers to adopt new techniques using advanced technology, so that they can develop high-value products and services.
“The Baxter robot is a great example of innovation in action.”
What makes Baxter different?
Baxter is a solution for manufacturers of all sizes. In addition to its uniquely low price point, Baxter offers six fundamental differences that distinguish it from traditional industrial robots.
No programming: Line workers can train Baxter in minutes, with no expertise in software, robotics or engineering required. In addition, Baxter retrains quickly for fast line changeovers.
No safety cages: Baxter was designed with a comprehensive safety system which makes it feasible for working without barriers and in close proximity to people in a production environment.
Streamlined integration: Baxter is a complete system (hardware, software, controls, UI, safety, sensors) that can quickly and easily be set up, integrated and trained to do its first task.
Works intelligently: Baxter is designed and programmed to perform a wide range of manufacturing and production tasks; it is aware of its environment, and automatically adjusts to changes.
Versatile and capable: Baxter was designed to perform simple, repetitive tasks quickly and efficiently, freeing people to focus on higher-level, more value-added activities.
Extendible platform: Baxter is a complete, yet fully extendible platform which includes all necessary software, with updates provided regularly to enhance capabilities and performance.
Researchers have developed a new low-cost electronic tongue designed to ensure quality in food and beverage products.
S.V. Litvinenko and his colleagues say that they have developed a low-cost and environmentally friendly “e-tongue” with a silicon base that could be easily incorporated into existing electronic systems of the same material.
Via the ACS Applied Material & Interfaces journal, S. V. Litvinenko and colleagues explain that the electronic tongue is an analytical instrument that mimics how people and other mammals distinguish tastes. The tongue consists of tiny sensors that detect substances in a sample, and send signals to a computer for processing – just as taste buds sense and transmit flavour messages to the brain.
A number of similar devices have already been developed and employed throughout the food and beverage industry where they are used for everything from authenticating Thai food to measuring beer quality. In September this year, researchers from Aarhus University in Denmark announced they had developed an artificial tongue that uses a surface plasmon resonance (SPR) based nanosensor to measure the dryness of wine.
Litvinenko’s team however say that many existing devices are limited in how they can be used and as such decided to make an improved instrument that could have applications in medical diagnostics, pharmaceutical testing and environmental monitoring, as well as food testing.
The researchers have tested the tongue on Armagnac, cognac, whiskey and water, and say that they were able to establish precise signatures for each.
The researchers believe that their work serves as a first step toward a novel tasting instrument with potentially diverse applications.
The report titled, Might Silicon Surface Be Used for Electronic Tongue Application? has been published in the ACS Applied Material & Interfaces journal.
WA’s Fiona Stanley Hospital will be home to free-roaming food delivery robots along with cutting-edge cooking and fully traceable food safety protocols when its opens next week.
The hospital will feature 18 automated guided vehicles equipped with a combination of GPS, proximity sensors, wi-fi and powerful computing with the capability of delivering up to 2200 meals direct to wards each day. Furthermore, this is all completed without human intervention once the robot has left the hospital kitchen, The West reports.
According to Serco's soft services manager Breffni Doyle, (Serco being the patient catering service at the hospital) the robots have the ability to communicate with the hospital systems by wifi, enabling it to deliver food right across the campus. The technology is so sophisticated that the robots can even call for a lift to deliver food across numerous levels of the complex.
Serco's head chef Steve Newson said that the robots will significantly improve efficiencies in the kitchen, in addition to providing a more enjoyable dining experience for patients.
"The technology means food is not held too long and the time between cooking and delivery is significantly reduced," said Newson.
"We want to make the dining experience as rich and enjoyable as possible. We buy in fresh vegetables, steaming them and chilling them ourselves. All our wet dishes are made on site from scratch."
Patients at Fiona Stanley Hospital will be able to order their meals via a patient entertainment system. Stage one of the hospital is due to open next week.
Next generation automated technology is providing an innovative solution to critical issues facing many small food manufacturers, while also streamlining the production cycle to boost safety and efficiency.
A new generation of lightweight robots means small food manufacturers in Australia can now enjoy the benefits of automation, previously only available to larger organisations. Many small businesses are turning to robotic technology to transform the entire lifecycle of the food manufacturing process. In fact, the recent interest by small food manufacturers has pushed Australian robotic purchases to record highs.
Through the implementation of new lightweight and compact robots, food manufacturers are now able to build a modern manufacturing workplace – automating industrial processes and upgrading the labour force to operate machines instead of having staff perform monotonous and repetitive manual tasks.
Man or machine
Industrial robots have long excelled at the kind of manually repetitive tasks that employees can find undesirable. Indeed, large food manufacturers in Australia have long used robotics in food processing throughout the production process.
More recently, small manufacturers have turned to more affordable robots to help free-up staff from unstimulating or labour-intensive roles. In small manufacturing facilities, even skilled workers can spend more than 32 hours per week on repetitive activities such as picking or packaging.
Lightweight industrial robots can take over these activities, while also significantly slashing the time taken to complete each action. For example, in a small bottling plant a single robot is able to complete the packaging process more than 35 percent faster than manual handling. The robot is used to pick-up two or three bottles simultaneously from the production line every 2.5 seconds, orienting them, and placing them in the packing machine.
Such a set-up can enable organisations to utilise staff more effectively – freeing them up to perform more skilled activities, such as operating machinery.
A move to modularity
Today’s emerging manufacturing technologies are extremely adaptable – both in terms of function and the way they integrate into the overall production process. The highly configurable new technologies can significantly improve throughput time – particularly in the areas of preparation and set-up, as well as reducing inspection and put-away time.
For industrial robots, the push for lightweight machines means they can be mounted on the wall or shifted from one location to another, adding flexibility to the manufacturing process, thereby saving money on valuable real estate costs. This is a significant advantage for manufacturers when they choose to expand, move or grow their production line.
Also, small batch and seasonal productions are no longer stumbling blocks for businesses as the robots can be relocated with ease without the need to overhaul the floor layout and can be assigned to carry out different tasks in accordance with demand.
One of the most appealing aspects of the new generation of industrial robotics to small businesses is that they no longer require specialist knowledge to operate. Modern machines can now be completely reconfigured and deployed for any number of tasks in a matter of hours by almost any employee, instead of relying on engineers, therefore avoiding high fees. Lightweight robots now use a drag and drop interface more commonly found on consumer devices. Programming can be done via a teach pendant whereby the user-friendly interface allows the programmer to drag and drop the routines to do their programming. This functionality is very similar to an iPad, allowing manufacturers to take full advantage of all the production benefits of a dedicated production line.
Safety and cost
Of course there are many other considerations when investing in new technology – including the wellbeing of employees and ROI.
Manufacturing roles often consist of labour-intensive manual tasks. These are potentially highly dangerous activities, yet the reality is that for many employees this will constitute a large part of their working week.
Injuries related to both repetitive manual handling and workplace accidents cost the Australian economy millions of dollars every year. Packing and production lines in small operations are particularly risky. However, in contrast to traditional industrial robots in the market, small and lightweight robots can work collaboratively with staff.
Collaborative robots, or “co-bots” (in the majority of cases) don’t require safety shielding, enabling staff to work side-by-side with the robots.
Of course, the business benefit of industrial robotics goes well beyond just safety, with affordability also being one of the main business considerations. During the past few years industrial robots have become increasingly cost-effective. In most instances the investment in a lightweight industrial robot can be recouped in just over a year, and the total initial ownership cost is very low compared to many traditional robots.
The ease of programming, integration and after sales maintenance means manufacturers save about 30 to 40 percent in integration costs compared to other traditional industrial robots in the market.
Lightweight robot technology is helping small food manufacturers transform their production lines, while retaining skilled workers and creating a safe workplace environment where employees can work side-by-side with a robotic counterpart.
Shermine Gotfredsen is business development manager at Universal Robots Asia Pacific.
Business is booming at Mrs Mac’s Pies which is currently trialling a new robotic production line, and is also hopeful of entering the Russian market, with a shipment of pies currently on its way to Moscow.
Director of the family business, Rob Macgregor, said the rise of healthy snack foods like wraps and sushi – especially for football fans – has forced the company to innovate.
"Twenty years ago, the only food one would buy at half-time was a pie. But the competition has been good. We now produce pies with less fat and salt and with pastry made from vegetable margarines and shortenings, not animal fats, as was the case for most of last century,” he said.
Since the death of Iain Macgregor in February 2012, Mrs Mac’s has been overseen by Rob and his sister Kate, and their mother Pennie, driving $20 million of capital works and improvement programs including the robotic production line which can pack and stack thousands of pies and sausage rolls in an hour.
"The robots are incredible. This is a labour-intensive business, and it probably always will be, but the speed and precision of our robots takes the pressure off an already busy workforce,” Rob told The West Australian.
Mrs Mac’s makes one million pies a week and more than half a million sausage rolls, and the company has recently developed a BYO line of pies, which aims to take advantage of the rise in on-premise cooking. The pies are sold frozen to petrol stations, pubs and sports clubs, and while this means Mrs Mac’s misses out on a branding opportunity, it’s allowed the company to enter a new market.
As well as its BYO line, Mrs Mac's also offers more than 100 varieties of pies and sausage rolls, a gourmet steak line and a line of low fat pies for school canteens.
Northcliffe-based dairy, Bannister Downs, is working on a $12 million automatic milking operation that is expected to be the most modern robot dairy in Australia.
According to The West Australian, the Automatic Milking Rotary, which uses laser-guided robots to place and remove the milking cups on the cows, will milk 950 cows twice a day and will require no human intervention.
The dairy’s co-owner, Sue Daubney, said "They're Gen-Y cows … They come and go as they please. It's all about them."
The technology is expected to be completed in early 2016.
Bannister Downs is a 100 tonne a week milk and cream producer with 2,500 cows and more than 1000ha of farmland.
Schneider Electric is offering cheese manufacturers the ability to improve their process control and product quality with its PlantStruxure technology.
The technology makes cheesemaking, traditionally a hands-on, artisan process, more automated, allowing manufacturers to generate a more consistent product.
Schneider Electric operations manager at its South Caernarfon Creameries, Mark Beavon, explains that PlantStruxure, the company’s collaborative and integrated automation architecture for industrial and infrastructure applications, takes the guesswork out of cheesemaking.
“Cheesemaking itself is a technical craft and you need not only the technical expertise but also the craft element – so you rely on the cheesemaker himself. So if you give him equipment that’s different to use and you can use it in different ways then the cheesemakers do use them in different ways, so you get some inconsistency,” he said.
The company has built new stainless steel control panels for six vats, as well as a master control panel. “The idea was that on the front of each of these panels we put in a screen view which was then linked to the PlantStruxture architecture behind there which we could then pre-program. So as a cheesemaker i could be in front of vats 1,2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 working on the vat or I could move away to the master control panel and get an overview of all six vats.”
“By simply starting the process on the screen view, the PlantStruxture architecture kicks in and starts to take in the process through the recipe,” Beavon said.
“As you get bigger, you do need bigger equipment and also more process control, because you can't necessarily get your hands in and do some of the things we used to do.”
Whether you're running a small food manufacturing business or a large scale distribution operation, logistics matters. By Aoife Boothroyd.
There are a myriad of logistics models that businesses can subscribe to, with the size, scope and nature of the business being the key determining factors influencing which model is most appropriate.
Food magazine recently spoke to two food manufacturers that employ automation as a key part of their overall logistical operations: South Australian tomato producer D'VineRipe and cereal giant Kellogg's.
D'VineRipe was established in 2006 as a joint venture between food marketing company, Perfection Fresh Australia and investment company, The Victor Smorgon Group.
The company produces a wide range of tomatoes from cocktail-sized, right up to the larger truss varieties.
D'VineRipe has the capacity to produce up to 15,000 tonnes of vine-ripened fruit year round in its state-of-the-art, 27 hectare glasshouse facility, complete with climate control and irrigation.
D'VineRipe supplies some of the nation's largest retailers including Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and Costco, and delivers to all the eastern states, with a smaller concentration in Western Australia and South Australia. Most impressively, they do this within a 24 to 72 hour turn-around from when the fruit is picked from the vine.
D'VineRipe operates to the Delivered In Full, On Time (DIFOT) logistics model which is designed to measure delivery performance throughout the supply chain, and is geared to tailor deliveries to the customer by measuring how often the customer gets exactly what they want, at the time that they want it.
As D'VineRipe is in the business of perishable goods, it is imperative that its operations run as timely and as smoothly as possible. To achieve this, the facility is fitted out with a network of automatic guided vehicles which run down the rows of each glasshouse to collect fruit, and then deliver the full boxes straight back to the pack house where they are automatically weighed, entered into a buffer system, graded, and packed based on variety.
"All the picking operations are manually done, however the automatic guided vehicles improve efficiencies by eliminating that extra operation of someone transporting the fruit back to the pack house, picking up the box, weighing it, recording the weight on a piece of paper and then entering it into a computer," says Jon Jones, general manager of D'VineRipe.
"The vehicles enable all those steps to happen automatically."
The automatic guided vehicle system was built for D'VineRipe by Belgian company, Bogaerts Greenhouse Logistics. The vehicles deliver accurate recording data capabilities in terms of weighing the product, and also feature a built-in sensor, or a photo eye, that picks up if a person or object is within its range, enabling it to slow down or stop to avoid a collision.
When asked about the reliability of such a sophisticated system, Jones says that it's almost "bulletproof."
"It's like any computer system, it is » extremely reliable. Sometimes you can experience a glitch here or there, but the majority of the time it's bulletproof," he says.
Jones says that since the system was put in place over four years ago, operational efficiencies have improved even further thanks to various updates in technology.
"We are always looking for new efficiencies. We as a company have changed and gotten bigger; the technology in the automatic guided vehicles has also been upgraded and improved."
Logistics automation is key to the operations of many businesses, however the processes required by long shelf life FMCG's are obviously different compared to that of perishable produce like tomatoes.
Global food manufacturer Kellogg's decided to make the switch from an almost entirely manually operated 27,000 square metre distribution centre in Botany, New South Wales, to a system that could automatically process high demand volumes whilst also achieving high storage densities.
The system back in 2003 was capable of accommodating 28,000 pallet positions across the warehouse's 27,000 square metres, but the introduction of a new system saw the company achieve impressive storage and operational efficiencies that it did not expect.
Kellogg's worked with Dexion, a distribution management specialist, and supply chain solution company, Linfox, to create a more efficient and sustainable distribution model. The model incorporated an automated storage and retrieval system (ASRS) which was implemented as part of a broader Real-Time Distribution System (RDS).
ASRS is designed to tackle some of the most difficult challenges that FMCG distribution centres face including completing orders that cover high volume, fast moving and fluctuating quantities of goods that can be subject to strict use-by dates, while RDS controls the physical and operational aspects of a company's distribution centre from the receipt of goods to processing, storage, order fulfilment and despatch in real time.
Kellogg's new ASRS includes pallet conveyors, robotics, storage and retrieval systems and IT hardware that enabled the new distribution centre to hold 32,000 pallets – 4,000 more than what was previously possible – within the automated storage component and the conventional section of the warehouse.
The new system enabled pallets to be stored in five aisles, six pallets deep on either side, with each aisle serviced by its own automatic crane. The ASRS enabled Kellogg's to have the capacity to put away up to 90 pallets per hour, and retrieve 120 pallets per hour.
Another impressive aspect of the new system was the command and control centre that provides a pictorial overview of the ASRS system, enabling the operator to see what the system's doing in real time and quickly resolve any issues that arise.
Since the introduction of the system, Kellogg's has reported a 10 percent reduction in pick error; production damage has been reduced by a staggering 85 percent and labour costs have also dropped as only half the amount of forklifts are now required, even with the increased capacities.
The most important part of any logistical operation is to have appropriate processes in place, enabling the operation to run as smoothly as possible by eliminating inefficiencies.
While investing in sophisticated automation systems might mean a reduction in staff levels and a considerable investment initially, the productivity and long-term financial gains can most definitely outweigh the disadvantages.
Printing food seems more like an idea based in Star Trek rather than in the average home. But recent advances in 3D printing (known formally as additive manufacturing) are driving the concept closer to reality. With everything from printed metal airplane wings to replacement organs on the horizon, could printed food be next? And how will we feel when it’s served at the table?
From sundaes to space food
In some ways we have “printed” food for decades. Think of making a sundae using a self-dispensing ice-cream machine. Building by extruding material through a nozzle is quite similar to how certain 3D printers, called fused deposition modellers (FDM) work today. While FDM is primarily used for prototyping plastics, the technology has been applied in culinary arts for years.
Researchers at Cornell pioneered some of this work, adapting an open source extrusion printer, called the Fab@Home Lab, to work with food in 2007. They’ve gone so far as partnering with the French Culinary Institute in Manhattan to print personalised chocolate and cheese, cookies, cubes of pureed turkey and celery paste, and even tiny spaceships made of deep fried scallops.
Other 3D printing technologies have been investigated for use with food. In 2007, Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories introduced the CandyFab 4000, a DIY printer based on a modified selective laser sintering technique. The method utilised a focused heat source moving over a bed of sugar to fuse large 3D sugar sculptures. And just a few months ago, a team of students from the University of Waterloo was able to sinter chocolate using a custom built machine.
Established market players in Additive Manufacturing have taken notice as well. In September, 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD) acquired The Sugar Lab, a startup producing edible 3D sugar confections. The Sugar Lab had adapted 3D Systems' Color Jet Printing (CJP) technology to print flavoured edible binders on a sugar bed to fabricate solid structures.
The Sugar Lab
Beyond novelty, printed food could provide serious medical benefits. The Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) announced they’ll build printers to reassemble pureed food to look like the original – think 3D printed broccoli florets from pureed broccoli. TNO has targeted printers for nursing homes in order to help elderly people who have chewing and swallowing problems. Beyond medical conditions, TNO has proposed printing customised meals with varied levels of the basic food components like carbs, protein, and fat, for everyone from seniors, to athletes, to expectant mothers.
And NASA sees 3D-printed food as a revolutionary way to make personalised meals for astronauts. They are funding development of a 3D printer that premixes basic food components before spraying the mix on baking tray. Their ultimate goal would be to print a pizza. Beyond providing cosmic delivery, food would also be tailored for astronauts' daily activities.
The ethics of printed meat
Will printed food go beyond novelty value? Should it replace other foods or supplement the nutritional value of existing foods? In this area, one of the most interesting and perhaps controversial areas is the debate about printing meat.
Some suggest 3D printed meat could provide high quality protein for a growing global population without increasing stress on arable land or continually depleting the oceans. It could also answer the problem of methane emissions from agriculture.
In 2011 Modern Meadow took up the challenge, setting out to make ecological and economical leather and meat from bioprinters. They cultured biopsied bovine cells to produce sheets of tissue, eventually forming either meat or hide. They predict cultured leather will be on the market in five years.
Modern Meadow’s CEO Andras Forgacs is a pioneer in the bioprinting field cofounding the tissue printing company Organovo (NYSE:ONVO) with his father Gabor Forgacs. In 2011, Gabor – the Chief Scientific Officer at Modern Meadow, cooked and ate cultured pork live at a TEDMED conference.
Currently, it is very expensive to produce tiny volumes of printed meat, with estimates of thousands of dollars to make a pound of meat in the lab. But could the process be scaled up, and cell cultures made cheaper?
Biopsies aren’t the only sources for culture. The process could potentially use stem cells. Industrial scale printing of meat could additionally use cells grown in an algae-based cell culture and powered by novel processes such as photosynthesis-mimicking solar energy systems.
For vegetarians, printed meat somewhat circumvents concerns about harmful or destructive use of animals for food. Live animals are used only to provide cells from which cell lines can be grown (though the blood of unborn cows is needed to culture most cells).
Ethical vegans may still object at the use of non-human animals for human purposes; while non-destructive, it is still exploitative.
While we typically “eat with our eyes”, and printed meat could be made in familiar shapes and textures, our palette will be the dominating factor. That is, if printed meat could be proven safe.
Printed meat may result in a debate akin to that on GMO foods. Certainly the public will want to know whether printed foods are safe for human consumption.
Consumers will most likely demand adequate protections to ensure the development of printed foods does not limit their access to or contaminate organic foods. It is reasonable to assume most will want to decide whether they eat “real” meat or try printed meats, so labelling regulation will be important.
Farming communities and those in agricultural food production will also want a voice about if, when and how their industry will be transformed by industrialised printed meat.
Early identification or those affected, and extensive engagement with the range of community concerns about printed foods, is warranted. While no specific printed food exploration exists yet, similar forms of community engagement have been developed in Australia through the Science and Technology Engagement Pathways framework (STEP). They work with communities on a wide range of issues, including synthetic biology and bionic implants.
STEP has supported researchers in the ethics program at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science, who are identifying effective public engagement and deliberative democratic processes for uncovering and articulating community concerns about emerging technologies. Other entities like RiAus, an Australian non-profit, has been active in stimulating community debate specifically about synthetic meat.
The proof is in the print
With no slow-down in 3D printing developments, there will certainly be new advances in printed food. Whether the technology can truly move from the novelty sector will most likely depend on the ability to process a wider range of foods requiring influence from both the kitchen and from printer developers.
It is also debatable whether 3D printed food can integrate in the global supply chain, particularly if printed meat can be made economically viable and if consumers will accept it. However, the benefits of 3D printed food could be monumental. Time will tell if the next fad will be the 3D printed diet. Until then, the community should be involved in the discussion of printed food.
Dr. Robert Gorkin is a Strategic Development Officer at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES). He receives funding from the ARC
Susan Dodds receives funding from the Australian Research Council and is a Chief Investigator and Ethics Program Director for the Australian Centre of Excellence for Electromaterials Science (ACES). In 2012 she was the Chair of the National Enabling Technologies Strategy Stakeholder Advisory Council.
You see them every day – food labels at the supermarket; barcodes on electronic devices; shipping labels on products prepared for shipping to a foreign land. Just how does a business ensure the accuracy of the placement of labels? How does one ensure that labels stay secure for the journey they are to undertake?
Automated label applicators, though not new to the market place, have become increasingly important for businesses striving for speed, precision and efficiency. As businesses expand, and products number in the thousands, menial tasks of labelling, previously undertaken by hand, must give way to robotics and equipment that do not just replicate the action of labelling, but do so with precision, time after time after time.
Automation then, is the way to go. For businesses on the verge of expansion, it is time to consider an automated label applicator for the many advantages it offers. Let us consider these:
1. Increased productivity
As with any repetitive task performed by hand, labelling by hand takes a longer time to complete with each repetition. Automation ensures consistency (same amount of time required for every repetition), and that consistency equals time savings and increased productivity. Increased productivity, coupled with decreased labour costs simply means increased profits.
The benefits of automated labelling are not just reserved for the big companies. Today, with various systems capable of producing a range of labels for multiple products, more and more companies are beginning to leverage the efficiencies that automatic labelling offers.
2. Minimised defects and waste
Let’s face it. It is frustrating when labels do not pass the necessary QC. Time is needed to return them back to the source and to re-label them. And defective labelling does not make for happy customers and vendors on the receiving end, resulting in decreased customer satisfaction.
Automatic labelling offers better readability and reliability of the applied label. In addition, labels can be printed on-demand, which ensures that the most updated information is on the label at the right time on the right product.
3. Minimal wear-and-tear to hardware, and minimised human uncertainty
A good automated label applicator will be able to withstand rugged environments for years. It also does not throw a tantrum and quit on you when it has a bad day! One must always take into account human factors when the task of labelling is undertaken by hand, and repetitive actions carried out by hand will always result in diminished performance, not to mention the accompanied potential for defects in the labelling process.
Where upgrades and servicing are necessary, a good label applicator can often be easily serviced with minimal downtime, and often without the need to be transported for off-site repairs. The benefits of time savings to the entire production chain cannot be underestimated.
4. Decreased labour costs
Staff will always need to be trained – period. Even the simplest of repetitive action requires training, plus the necessary supervision thereafter – resulting in a high investment in time and trainers. Yes, there is still training involved in operating the label applicator, but it takes far less time, and arguably less monitoring time thereafter – reducing not just overheads and time taken for training, but also overall labour costs.
5. Compliance with statutory requirements, plus flexibility to change when requirements change
Automation ensures quality, and compliance to a standard that has been set – a standard sometimes set in accordance to statutory requirements. When such requirements change, a good automated label applicator is flexible enough (and far quicker than humans) to tolerate those changes. This also negates the necessity of excessive supervision and monitoring when such changes take effect. In comparison, humans effecting those changes will require training, observing, demonstrating and then trying till standards are met. All these take up excessive time, and labels often get wasted in the process.
6. Audits are easier
Try asking a fellow worker how many labels he has applied in a day – enough said. Automated label applicators make auditing an easier process, and analysing of the production process is easier when machines do the “talking” instead.
The impact on businesses when one chooses an automated label applicator is tremendous.
Where labelling by hand might result in erratic delivery times, automation gets the job done on time every time, which always bodes well for a company’s reputation, branding, and sales.
When workers are not inundated with the stress of overcoming diminishing returns for what is a menial and highly repetitive (not to mention occasionally boring) task, they are happier, and more productive as a result. Injury-related costs are minimised simply because of automation which can only mean costs savings at the very least for workplace injury insurance.
Datamax-O’Neil is a trusted global provider of stationary and portable label and receipt printing solution products that enable manufacturing and supply markets to capture the benefits of automated product identification and automated legal and financial transactions
If a research project from the University of Sydney has its way, robots will be replacing farm workers in the next five to 10 years.
According to the ABC, the project is getting robots to recognise fruit and is also working on developing trees which are easier to harvest.
Dr Salah Sukkariah, head of Robotics Research, said "That's that classic scenario, where you could sit down and say, I'm going to invest the next 10 years of Research and Development where a robot can reach into the middle of a tree and grab an apple, or you could actually change tree architecture.
"You have something of benefit to the tree in terms of efficiency, and almost make it easier for robotics."
A US husband and wife team has capitalised on society's growing interest in 3D printing, establishing The Sugar Lab, which designs, digitally models and prints sugar sculptures.
According to The Guardian, Kyle and Liz von Hasseln specialise in custom 3D-printed sugar for cakes.
Liz says 3D printing transforms sugar into a structural, sculptural element which can be used to sweeten or to ornament.
"It can also start to define the form of the food instead of the other way around, or even to support it structurally," she said.
"The overlap of technology, food and art is so rich, and the potentials for customization and innovation are limitless … We can definitely visualize a time when there will be a sugar 3D printer in every custom bakery. Brides will choose chocolate or vanilla, buttercream or fondant, and 3D-printed sugar topper shape."
The Guardian reports that academics at Cornell university have predicted that 3D printing, cloud computing and digitised personal data will revolutionise cooking in the years to come.
The von Hasselns aren't the only working experimenting with 3D printing and food. The video below shows a student from Pagora Grenoble, part France's largest engineering institute, who was challenged with the task of turning a 3D printer which usually prints kidney or liver tissue, into a 3D chocolate printer.
After 40 years and 25 million hectolitres of beer, European brewer Forst needed something new to get up-to-date with modern energy requirements and emissions considerations.
It designed an entirely new brewery, and cut costs while doing it.
The new brew house, powered by NORD Drivesystems, aided the brewer in reducing primary energy consumption by 30 percent.
Five large vats, a newly designed water supply, and a malting plant with twelve silos (and three separate storage vats) needed to be built in a space of just 16 months at the 154 year old brewery in Algund, in the Germanic region of Italy.
NORD Drivesystems assembled the geared motors for all the vessels according to the specific requirements of the various applications, from the grinding mill, which gently grinds the malt at the start of the brewing process, to the screw conveyor removing the spent grain.
Mixing malt and spring water in mash tuns and heating involves thermally optimised conducting surfaces at the bottom and the frames of the tun.
A frequency-controlled NORD helical bevel gear motor, equipped with a temperature sensor, drives the agitator inside the vessel.
In turn the liquid is pumped into the lauter tun, where liquid and solid parts are separated in a fully automated process.
As the spent grain settles on the floor of the vat pressure sensors at the bottom of the vessel detect the spent grain’s consistency, and the drive adjusts the machine’s speed accordingly, with flow rates between nine and 14 litres per minute.
To check whether the system is running smoothly, speeds, current consumption, and the motor temperature are centrally monitored continuously a custom-tailored NORD drive unit, a combination of a motor, industrial gear unit, and a helical bevel gear unit, with a maximum torque of 96,000 Nm.
Later stages are handled by various NORD drive motors and drives.
Dr. Walther Unterthurner, Technical Director at the Forst brewery, says the various measures have already reduced the consumption of primary energy by 30 percent.
Amid the gloom about the prospects for manufacturing in Australia — and the difficulties facing an economy dominated by small businesses (nearly 90 percent of Australian manufacturing capacity) — there is some cause for optimism. A new generation of lightweight, assistive robots looks to provide small to medium enterprises (SMEs) with new options to improve their competitiveness and meet the challenges of high costs and a shortage of skilled workers.
The news is good for workers, too. Robotic “smart tools” offer a means of removing danger and monotony from the work environment and, in striking contrast to conventional beliefs, provide a way to retain the existing workforce for longer.
The manufacture of robots is a growing source of employment. A 2011 report commissioned by the International Federation of Robotics found that 150,000 people worldwide are already employed in the engineering and assembly of robots.
This report also identifies use of robotics in SMEs as essential to win back manufacturing from countries with low labour costs. In this case, the introduction of robots is capable of maintaining the viability of manufacturing in developed countries – and preserving manufacturing jobs.
Assistive robotics offer a high-productivity solution that could also help Australian manufacturing integrate into regional value chains, as recommended in the recent Asian Century white paper.
Lightweight robots can be integrated into the Australian workplace as assistants to workers in three ways.
The first is as “intelligent tools”, which work together with human workers. Mobile assistants, manipulators, “smart” picking, lifting and handling systems, and robotic welders, gluers and assemblers enable automation of short-run production processes, and provide a flexible solution to increase efficiency of production.
Secondly, robots can also be used as tools to augment the abilities of human workers in manufacturing processes. Powered exoskeletons enable workers, regardless of age or gender, to lift and manipulate heavy loads safely. Wearable machine vision systems can alert workers to workplace hazards in real-time, including hazards which can’t be detected visually, such as radiation and high temperatures. Mobile assistive robotic trainers and tele-immersive training systems enable experienced staff to remotely mentor workers who are new to a work environment.
The third way is as “smart” field tools, which enable human workers to manufacture items under hazardous or challenging conditions. Tele-operated mobile tools and vehicles are already in use in the mining industry, enabling work to be supervised remotely in an environment that is safe and comfortable for workers. Rigs which facilitate micro-manipulation and micro-assembly enable workers to conduct micro-assembly of complex items without strain to eyesight. Virtual and augmented reality systems allow workers to manipulate tools while remote from the factory floor, therefore reducing risks of work-related injury such as repetitive strain and injuries from use of tools.
So why is robotics changing? Conventional industrial robots — such as those used in automotive manufacturing — are heavy, programmed for one task, fixed in place on the factory floor, and expensive to buy, install, program and maintain. They are also potentially hazardous to humans, so workers are usually excluded from the robot workspace. But the next generation of lightweight robots is different.
A number of technological advances have made this new generation of lightweight robots possible.
First, the next generation of robots can “see” the workplace using advanced vision systems (including stereo and infrared cameras and multi-modal imaging), high precision sensors and perception algorithms.
Secondly, the new generation of robots is mobile. They know where they are and can navigate within the workplace thanks to navigation, localisation and mapping technologies – such as Wi-Fi localisation, beacon-based navigation, simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM), and accurate 2D or 3D modelling.
Importantly, human workers are now able to easily communicate with robots via voice and visual gesture recognition. Sophisticated human-robot interactive interfaces allow shared autonomy and human supervisory control. Additionally, augmented and virtual reality robotic systems allow workers to work remotely in hazardous or physically demanding working environments and to tele-operate and tele-supervise remote equipment. Emerging global high-speed wireless communication systems such as the NBN provide the required infrastructure for these technologies.
Manipulation technologies, including force-amplifying exoskeletons (frameworks worn by workers to provide mobility and lifting assistance), dexterous manipulation (grasping and moving complex objects using robotic “fingers” or claws), and multi-robot cooperation make for a working environment that is safer for the workforce and enable any worker – regardless of sex or age – to effectively perform physically onerous or dangerous tasks in complete safety. Robotic tools similar to existing micro-surgery rigs enable workers to perform miniature component manufacturing and assembly tasks with precision and dexterity – without risk to their health.
Finally, the new generation of robots would not be possible without smart fabrication. Miniaturisation and smart and lightweight materials make for small, light, smart robots. These robots can move rapidly around a workplace, respond to commands to fetch tools, rapidly shift stores of materials and finished product, and complement human activities.
Alberto Elfes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.