Rising demand, a growing labor shortage, and market instability have made automation more critical than ever for the food and beverage industry. At the same time, novel robotics technologies have made automated systems much more flexible, efficient, and practical.
Robotic liquid handling systems are often a key component of food and beverage (F&B) manufacturing automation and set the pace of many factory workflows in facilities where they are adopted. These are the benefits that make robotic liquid handling platforms worth adopting right now.
A robotic system can significantly reduce the amount of labor needed to manufacture products. Partially or fully automating tasks allows businesses to shift workers from repetitive and tedious tasks, like filling containers, to work requiring creativity, concentration, or problem-solving finesse.
Both manufacturing tasks directly related to filling products and workflows that support robot systems can also be automated. Robotic washing stations, for example, can streamline cleaning processes.
Modern robotics platforms also enable a great deal of reproducibility in the manufacturing process. Robots can repeat the same action precisely for hours at a time, filling vessels with almost the same amount of liquid every single time.
The platform can sustain these actions for long periods. The reliability of these processes also means you can structure other manufacturing work around the precise schedule of your filling robots.
Automating these tasks may also permit businesses to shift workers to more meaningful tasks. This can help manufacturers prevent musculoskeletal disorders and repetitive stress injuries that can be caused by repetitive tasks performed for long periods, like positioning vessels or moving filled containers.
Automated liquid handling systems can significantly improve the efficiency and throughput of a manufacturing facility.
Modern systems typically offer configurations with a high channel or head number, meaning they can enable extraordinarily high throughputs in practice.
Many manufacturers of liquid handling systems offer add-on modules like conveyor systems, filling engines, and product delivery systems that can be customized as needed for a particular workflow.
These modules and customization options ensure the system can streamline many factory processes, including the filling of product containers, movement of containers to the filling liquid handling robot, and work like labeling that prepares those containers for the market.
Modern robotics and automation systems are distinct from older systems in their flexibility of design. Many modern platforms are built to be slotted in and out of existing workflows as needed, ensuring automation in facilities adapts to changing demands and market conditions.
For example, “on-the-fly” liquid fillers use components like robot arms to accommodate a wide range of liquid characteristics, container shapes, and container volumes, typically without the need for a part change to switch from one product to another. Manufacturers can move from one product to another “on-the-fly,” accelerating work and keeping their facility agile.
This technology can significantly improve throughput while keeping the facility’s workflows as adaptable and flexible as they would be with minimal automated filling or packaging systems.
These benefits also extend to manufacturers with unique or unusual workflows. Many manufacturers also offer custom-built filling robots that can allow manufacturers to automate processes that available systems cannot handle. For example, some manufacturers create filling systems that can fill multiple f-style containers at a time.
Many modern automation platforms offer remote monitoring and analysis features that allow managers to observe machine performance even while off-site.
Sensors can track information like machine temperature, timing, and efficiency. This information can be available from anywhere. If something has gone wrong with the liquid handling system or a process needs to be halted, the platform can also automatically alert managers and technicians, enabling a quick fix.
Data gathered by robot sensors can be both delivered to a manufacturing execution system or similar platform and to the cloud. There, it can be stored and later used in analyzing factory processes. Over time, this data can be extremely helpful for managers wanting to uncover insights into machine performance.
These data-gathering platforms can also make new systems much easier to maintain than more conventional robotics or machines. With enough performance data, businesses can implement a predictive maintenance strategy, which uses big data and AI algorithms trained on performance data to predict machine failure.
This approach can supplement a preventive maintenance strategy, allowing businesses to extend machine lifespan and reduce the potential for downtime due to failure.
In practice, predictive maintenance can save factory owners significant amounts on machine maintenance and repair. Manufacturers can save between 8% to 12% over preventive maintenance alone and up to 40% over a reactive maintenance strategy.
Robotic systems can generate and capture a great deal of information on the manufacturing process. For example, a system could be configured to automatically capture fill time, liquid volume, and product type for every container the system fills.
In the same way that sensor data from a robot liquid handling system can help managers improve machine performance, this operational data can contain insights on factory workflows. Variability in the filling process, throughput, and timing can all be compared, enabling managers to spot process inefficiencies and bottlenecks in factory workflows.
Product and operational information can also be useful when businesses need to stage product recalls. If a particular batch of items may be contaminated, information from the robotic system can provide additional information on which items may be affected. This data can allow the business to more precisely determine the scope of the recall, saving money and reducing the amount of product that would be wasted.
Growing consumer expectations and volatile demand mean F&B manufacturers will need to continue adapting.
Robotic liquid handling systems are one possible solution to the challenges facing these businesses. These systems can significantly improve throughput, boost efficiency, increase access to operational data, and make facility processes more reproducible.
Modern robotic liquid handling systems are also designed with modules that help them switch quickly from filling one product to another, meaning businesses adopting this tech can continue to prioritize flexibility and agility.
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized. She regularly covers trends in the industrial sector.