Various robotic concepts and designs have been developed and applied in many industries for almost a century. Even with the robotics longevity, it still is important to understand what is meant by “robots” or “robotics” during discussions assessing current and future applications. Using the best dictionary definition, robotics is “a mechanism guided by automatic controls.”  This description is rather general; however, as the creators probably intended, there was need to have a universal definition for these newly developed automatically controlled machines that replicated a robot (a mechanical man).

Where robotic concepts originated has been claimed, debated and analyzed; however, the significant question is why the ideas were born, developed into concepts and tested in applications. From an operations perspective, including studies, evaluations and design criteria, the universal robotics intent had three focuses: to replace manual task effort, to reduce operating time and to increase output.

To prioritize the robotic intent, many original studies and research focused on large-component assembly operations requiring labor intensive and time consuming tasks; therefore, the automotive industry became one of the primary targets for labor/time reduction and increased productivity. Originally, robotic applications were in four or five countries worldwide with more than 60 percent in the automobile, automotive parts and aircraft industries. From industry resources, future projections indicate there will be approximately 2 million robotic type applications in multiple industries on a global basis by 2020.

Amidst this controlled mechanism era, one might ask: how has the beverage industry currently aligned itself with the robotic evolution and what are the future prospects?

First, beverage production and distribution facilities have been in a labor/time conservation mode for more than 50 years. During this time, operating conditions have changed to the extent that the criteria for the consideration and application of automated type production capabilities had to be updated. Because most beverage facilities often are confronted with similar physical items handled during processing, production, warehousing and pre-distribution operations, robotic machine applications began to get more attention from producers and manufacturers. 

Second, an important evaluation point is critical, beverage plants do not possess large assembly units; therefore, any robotic machine design must have the material handling capability for moving smaller units into confined packaging locations. How small, how fast and how accurately raise the criteria questions. What size must a robot be to handle beverage cases or pallets? 

Finally, because of high-frequency changes in operating conditions, manufacturers constantly are working on new robotic design applications to meet specific beverage criteria. These actions are a needed departure from standalone robotics at the end-of-line used to supplement the case palletizing operation. The standalone overcame line speed palletizer problems, and even then multi-robotic machines had to be installed. Besides speed, robotic arm flexibility in positioning cases has been another obstacle. These real-time problems exist and challenge application validity. Such limitations added to the manufacturers challenge as they reviewed the robotics idea and applications in other industries. As a result, more designs now have produced a variety of robotic machines in size, flexibility, speed and cost that permit users to choose a more feasible application for their operating conditions.

On a scale of 1-10, beverage robotics application could be a 6 or 7. Why? Beverage facilities have been hesitant in making new applications; therefore, although robotic design progress has provided an array of machines, some applications have not kept pace with beverage needs. In some cases this is justified because high-speed lines are costly and present a challenge to efficient line configurations. Even the extent to which robotics have been developed for beverages, in such areas as wrap machines, multi-packs and case stacking/picking, robotic development and design still is on the drawing boards. 

 Current designs, sizes and speeds for multi-functional robotics have indicated more feasible applications for beverage facilities in the future. However, beverage production line design with ultimate capability, capacity, size and flexibility will present practical limitations. A fully automated line might be possible, but much work needs to be done.