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Opinion: How can automation free food and beverage workers from palletising dangers?
FoodBev Media

FoodBev Media

6 July 2023

Opinion: How can automation free food and beverage workers from palletising dangers?

Traditionally, palletisation has been a manual operation – and in many cases it still is. It is estimated that 250,000 people are employed in this type of work worldwide. Over an eight-hour shift, a worker could be lifting up to 8,000kgs of products, presenting a danger to the body and posture. Could collaborative robots free employees from harmful palletising work? Mark Gray, country manager for UK and Ireland at Universal Robots, finds out. Since the dawn of the industrial revolution, the process of stacking large quantities of identical items onto a pallet, with the aim of safely storing or transporting them, has existed. Known as palletising, the process is a necessity for any business that produces things at scale for commercial consumption. From canned and bottled goods to PET packaged food items – the products on these pallets keep the world fed and satiated. But these pallets do not stack themselves... The dark side of palletisation Irving Paz Chagoya, global industry segment leader for palletising and packaging at Universal Robots is aware of the widespread dangers palletising poses: “Traditionally, palletisation has been a manual operation – and in many cases it still is. Workers bend, lift and twist for hours on end, which can cause long-term musculoskeletal damage.”

Setia Hermawati, senior research fellow at the University of Nottingham and an ergonomics expert specialising in manufacturing, identifies three main risk factors in manual palletising:

  1. Force: During manual palletising, workers have to manually handle items and use forces in activities such as lifting, lowering, pushing, pulling and carrying. The continuous use of force is shown to be associated with cumulative work-related muscle disorders such as back, neck and upper limb injuries. The risk of manual handling is exacerbated when the items are too heavy, difficult to grasp and are positioned in a manner that requires torso bending or twisting.

  2. Repetition: Repetitive tasks place excessive strain and fatigue on the cardiovascular system due to the demands placed on the working muscles, as the muscles may not have sufficient time for recovery. Even repetitive handling of light items may pose a risk of upper limb disorders if workers need to perform them more than once every five seconds, according to the UK’s Health and Safety Executive.

  3. Posture: Manual handling that involves torso twisting and bending means that the joints are beyond their neutral position and close to the extreme end of their maximum range of movement and is closely associated with musculoskeletal injuries. In addition, manual palletising workers generally stand between the conveyor and the pallet for extended periods. This is associated with various potentially negative health outcomes such as lower back pain, cardiovascular problems, etc. Automating palletising can relieve workers from all the associated health risks, reduce tedium and improve overall well-being. This allows workers to both protect their health and focus on other more suited tasks, such as quality assurance.

Opportunity for the F&B industry Although the repetitive and often dangerous nature of palletising means it lends itself very well to automation, the food and beverage industry has traditionally been slow to adopt robotics. This is likely due to a number of reasons including the complexity of operations, and that many manufacturers admit they still don’t know where to start when it comes to deploying automation. But, the industry has experienced some seismic shifts following the pandemic, with consumer habits changing overnight. For instance, an increased focus on personal hygiene and safety meant consumers became more conscious of tamper-proof packaging to act as a protective barrier. These changes highlighted how unprepared lots of companies were to quickly respond. By automating palletising, not only can the industry become more efficient and better align its palletising strategies with consumer demands, but it will also help the business involved to grow. Sam Bouchard, CEO of Robotiq, a robotics integrator aiming to free human hands from repetitive tasks, commented: "In many factories where we've installed our palletising solution, the palletising task is the bottleneck that prevents company growth. Increasing palletising capacity with a collaborative robot has allowed those businesses to produce more, and hire more workers in the upstream production processes." He continued: “In addition having a collaborative robot palletising cell enables the business to offer better working conditions to the humans who take care of the robot".

Solving the labour crisis According to PwC’s 2020 Annual Manufacturing Report, British manufacturers are facing the largest shortage of workers since 1989 – and things haven’t improved much in the last three years. For the food and beverage industry – the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, which employs over 475,000 people – this is no different, especially as the industry has traditionally been heavily reliant on labour from Europe. In addition to this, musculoskeletal problems – caused by the more manual tasks associated with manufacturing– often lead to the early exclusion of senior workers from this type of work. Despite these workforce pressures and the benefits provided by automation, many have been slow to automate often due to the perception that automation is expensive and seen to be taking away jobs from humans. This doesn’t need to be the case. On the topic of cost, it has been shown that cobots can achieve ROI in around 12 months. In fact, a single robotic arm can work nonstop for at least 35,000 hours, which is approximately four years of 24/7 work. As for dispelling the fears of job losses, cobots are designed to work alongside humans, not replace them. With minimal training, existing workforces can design, implement and monitor automated palletising solutions. What do the next five years have in store? Looking ahead, collaborative palletising solutions are well suited to wide a range of industries, including food and beverage, electronics, and pharmaceuticals. This adaptability combined with advances in cobot technology, means food and beverage manufacturers can not only better respond to changing consumer attitudes but can reduce workplace injuries due to manual palletisation, making it easier for workers to stay in the workforce longer.

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