Robot rewards: Are robotics really increasing efficiency and productivity in APAC’s F&B industries?

By Tingmin Koe and Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

In this edition of Asia’s Food Future: Industry 4.0, we take a look at robots in food and explore whether this tech is truly bringing the industry to greater heights.
In this edition of Asia’s Food Future: Industry 4.0, we take a look at robots in food and explore whether this tech is truly bringing the industry to greater heights.

Related tags: Asia's Food Future, Industry 4.0, Robotics

Robotics has long been thought of as a crucial area of technology that industries, including F&B, must incorporate to achieve next-generation levels of advancement. In this edition of Asia’s Food Future: Industry 4.0, we take a look at robots in food and explore whether this tech is truly bringing the industry to greater heights.

As a whole, the global food robotics market is expected to reach US$3.1bn by 2025, according to Meticulous Research.

1) Robotics market global
Six factors driving the global food robotics market

There are a wide variety of robots out there, but industrial robots in particular are of interest to the food industry, as they are used in industrial automation applications such as in F&B manufacturing.

 “No enterprise is too small or too big for robotics,”​ Universal Robots General Manager, South East Asia and Oceania Sakari Kuikka told FoodNavigator-Asia​.

2) No enterprise too small or big

Denmark-based Universal Robots specialises in manufacturing a type of industrial robots called collaborative robots (cobots), which are specifically designed to share a workspace with humans. The company is the global leader in cobots, with some 50% to 60% of global market share.

“Cobots can work safely alongside humans without safety fences or gauges [like many other types of robots need], in settings such as manufacturing factories,”​ he added.

Amongst the applications of cobots in the food industry include automated packing, palletising and lifting functions.

Examples of food companies currently using cobots include sugar company Nordic Sugar’s use of cobots for pick-and-place purposes and quality inspection, as well as FMCG firm Orkla Foods’ use of cobots to complete the packaging of its food products into cartons, processes which were previously done manually by human labour.

“Nordic Sugar’s use of cobots freed up their human labour to perform more important, value-added tasks. For Orkla Foods, the cobot was performing heavy lifting, and this was important from an ergonomic point of view,”​ he said.

"[Overall, the aim] is to help increase factory efficiencies, productivity, and from there of course profitability.”

Watch the video below to see more on Universal Robots’ insights into robotics.

Customising solutions

To lift productivity level and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE), Enterprise Singapore (ESG) – a government agency championing local enterprise development – is using a customised approach to help firms adopt new technologies, Bernice Tay, director of Food Manufacturing Division, ESG, told us. 

For early adopters, ESG works with the Economic Development Board (EDB) in helping firms identify priority areas for technology adoption.

It also introduces them to global technology and robotics firms such as ABB for co-innovation.

For traditional firms, it collaborates with Microsoft in raising awareness and adoption of easy-to-implement technologies such as the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP).

“The end goal is to drive companies to increase productivity and their OEE through data-driven decisions. This will then enable them to replicate production efficiencies overseas and maintain control in Singapore as their regional or global HQ,”​ Tay said.

In terms of adopting robotics, some of the food manufacturing firms that ESG had supported include Chop Hup Chong Food Industries, the company behind famous bak kwa (sliced barbecued meat) brand Bee Cheng Hiang, and Foodgnostic Food Solutions, the supplier of cheesecake brand Cat & the Fiddle.

Pumping exports

Foodgnostic Food Solutions currently uses three robotics for cake-cutting purposes.

The firm first used ultrasonic robotics about three to four years ago, and towards the end of last year, it upgraded to two new robotics which are capable of cutting about 1,000 to 1,500 frozen cakes per day.

The older version has only one knife while the newer machines come with four knifes.  

Previously, a team of five was required to cut the cakes manually, and was only capable of cutting 100 to 200 cakes per day.

“We used traditional manual cutting in the past…We even needed to heat up the knife before we cut the cake. However, as our business grew bigger and needed to meet the demand for exports, we can no longer use the traditional means since we needed to meet a bigger demand,”​ said founder Daniel Tay.

Besides rising productivity and cutting the amount of labour involved, robotics have also ensure quality control.

“If we were to cut the cakes manually, the sizes may not be identical and there might be jagged edges, but when we use robotics, the sizes are identical with a clean and smooth cut,”​ he added.

However, before sending the cakes for cutting, an additional step needs to be incorporated, which is to keep the cakes in a blast freezer for about one to two hours.

This is because each layer of the cake will need to be of the same temperature before cutting could take place smoothly. 

Watch the following video to see the cake-cutting process.

Tech dilemma

On the other hand, Chop Hup Chong uses a robot arm for the vacuum packaging of its bak kwa (a dried meat product) goods, which has helped to cut labour costs.

Working in tandem with a camera, the robot recognises and picks up individual piece of bak kwa using suction force.

The robot then adjust each piece of bak kwa to the right position and inserts it onto the packaging mould. 

The firm had spent about SGD$200k (US$145k) - including a grant from the ESG – when purchasing the robot. 

The robot has been in use for the past three to four years, managing director Richard Wong said. 

FlexiPicker

However, the use of the robot has not necessarily led to a higher productivity.

This is because the robot will only recognise and pick up pieces of bak kwa that are in the “correct shapes.”

“The issue is that the shape of the bak kwa pieces may not be regular all the time, there may be jagged edges, or some corners of the bak kwa may be missing. Therefore, many of times, the camera may be ‘confused’ and may not pick up bak kwa with slightly irregular shapes. This is the challenge that we had with the machine,”​ Wong said.

As a result, human intervention is still needed to insert the leftover bak kwa pieces unto the plastic mould.

“In this sense, the level of productivity has dropped, (but) we still went ahead to use it. We are able to cut the amount of labour required, say from four to two persons, although it is not working at the speed that I want and the productivity for this segment has dipped by about 25%. This is the compromise that we have to make when using this robot. 

“The reason why we used robots in the first place, is that we want to cut down labour and raise productivity. We have assessed the importance of robotics and thought why not we go ahead with using it.

“(Although in the end), this is not a very ideal method to lift productivity, but it is better than nothing. If we were to continue to discuss and improve the robot, I believe it will become more productive.”

Wong added that the lack of robotics catered to the bak kwa industry, was a challenge that the firm must face.

“For us who are into the bak kwa business, the number of companies manufacturing robotics for this industry is not a lot. There isn’t a robotics firm that will focus on making a robotic machine for the bak kwa industry, unlike the sausage or ham industry. These are huge industries, and so, robotics firms will place more focus on the R&D of robotics for use in these areas.

“So comparatively speaking, there is a lack of robotics resources specially catered to the bak kwa industry.”

Nonetheless, Wong is still hopeful about the use of robotics and revealed that the firm is now working on a robotic technology for transportation of goods within the factory.

Cutting-edge research

The Nanyang Technological University (NTU) Robotics Research Centre (RRC) in Singapore is conducting a number of in the area of robotics, the most mature of which is a joint project with two well-known local supermarkets for ergonomic purposes.

“The robots we are working on [in this project] are semi-automatic ones which will help supermarket workers, especially senior workers, to stock shelves and lift heavy objects,” ​project co-lead Professor Chen I-Ming told FoodNavigator-Asia.

Although Professor Chen could not reveal precise details of the project as the researchers are currently bound by a non-disclosure agreement, he did tell us that the project is backed by the Singapore Ministry of Health.

Other works in progress include the use of robotics for food assembly at an in-flight catering centre, which he hopes to see expanding to cover traditional food service (e.g. putting together bento boxes) as well.

“The major benefit I see of using robots in the food industry is food safety – most food safety issues result from negligence during human handling while the food is processed, and robot usage will minimise human contact with the food products,” ​added Prof Chen.

Robotics growth and future in APAC

In terms of growth numbers, Kuikka expressed optimism for the robotics market in Asia Pacific.

“We see great potential for the industrial robots market in FMCG and F&B in the Asia Pacific region. Looking at sales numbers, the APAC F&B (including tobacco) industry only took some 3% of the global industrial robot shipments market share in 2017, and we see that percentage increasing,” ​he said.

“Especially with cobots, thresholds are being lowered for small and medium enterprises (SMEs) to start automation [whether in terms of safety, investment or size], and this will increase growth too.”

APAC is expected to account for the largest growth in the cobots market from now till 2025, up to 56.5% CAGR to hit US$5.67bn in value.

3) APAC growth

Overall, research agencies expect the Asia Pacific region to continue topping the global food robotics market until at least 2023.

4) APAC Food Robotics

That said, Prof Chen highlighted two major challenges that the robotics industry will have to overcome to ever become mainstream.

“The capability of the robots is always mapped to technology, and until this technology becomes standardised or universal, [there will be a barrier to making robot usage mainstream],” ​he said.

“The other challenge is that of cost – the price will always matter, [and the industry will need to bring this down to an acceptable point if they want to make robotic usage widespread].”

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