Robots are taking food packaging into the future with streamlined, high-efficiency processes that deliver on quality. Robotics is taking on important roles in this sector, from packaging concepts to palletizing to shipment. In a sense, they are revolutionizing the industry and focusing on efficiency, quality, and cleanliness.
Food packaging includes many nuances and details crucial for safe and successful operations, so robotic applications in this field can have a major impact. New technological developments are improving and evolving existing processes, as well. These seven applications show particular promise and effectiveness.
1. Rapid Pick and Place
Robots are ideal for pick-and-place applications in food packaging. The wide variety of robotic grippers available today makes it possible for virtually any food to be safely packaged and processed by robots. Over the last few years, the introduction of advanced soft robotic grippers has elevated this niche. For example, one cutting-edge gripper developed at North Carolina State University is gentle enough to pick up an egg yolk, so robots can effectively package delicate foods like eggs or pastries.
This is a game-changer for food and beverage companies. Pick-and-place processes can be some of the most tedious jobs for humans to perform but are among the easiest for robots. This is a perfect opportunity for businesses to use robots to improve efficiency while allowing employees to shift to more engaging tasks. Today’s food packaging robots are highly consistent and intelligent and can deliver consistently reliable results.
2. Spearheading Sustainable Packaging
One of the top priorities for consumers today is sustainability. McKinsey studies show that 52% of American consumers would buy more products with sustainable packaging. However, 52% would only do so if it did not cost more than conventional packaging. At the same time, 60%-70% of people across all segments reported they would pay more for sustainable packaging. This leaves food and beverage companies tricky, but robotics is emerging as the solution.
Applying robotics to food packaging production can lead to high-quality, affordable, sustainable packaging. For example, robotics company Zume pivoted from pizza robots in 2021 to developing a robotic system for creating sustainable packaging out of agricultural waste. Its model is now being applied to food packaging businesses worldwide. Robots’ efficiency and consistent quality allow companies to produce green packaging without higher end-consumer prices. This robotics application is still somewhat new in the food and beverage industry, but it is likely to become the future of food packaging.
3. Optimizing Employee Skills
Sometimes the best solution is one that combines human skills with technology. Collaborative robots, or “cobots,” are gaining popularity across the food and beverage industry for this exact reason. These food packaging robots work by augmenting employees’ skills rather than replacing them. There are certain tasks humans are simply better at performing than robots. However, integrating cobots into these tasks can still offer a bump in productivity and efficiency.
For example, one packaged food company based in Finland used cobots to improve flexibility and become more competitive. Three cobots provided noticeable returns for a team of only 30 employees. The cobots allowed them to easily pivot production from one product to another. Keeping humans in the loop improved creativity, resulting in better tooling devices for the food packaging robots.
4. Next-Gen Packaging Design
The unique design of food packaging is the most important element, second only to sheer functionality. A good style can catch the attention of the right customers and convey a brand’s values and purpose. This highly artistic packaging design may seem like a strange place to implement robotics. However, robotic process automation through artificial intelligence software could be the key to next-generation creations.
For example, a design AI can closely analyze packaging color theory, a product’s target market, and the specific needs of a certain food item. It can use this data to generate a unique packaging design optimized to use the least amount of material while still maximizing functionality and aesthetics. This is a case of software robotics rather than hardware robotics. Human design engineers and artists can use AI software as a design tool to help generate unique ideas and then fine-tune them to perfectly fit a certain food company’s brand, message, and audience.
5. Automated Quality Control
Anyone who works in food packaging knows how critical quality control is. The quality of food packaging can have a big impact on how customers perceive a product or company. Sealed, secure packaging conveys safe, clean food. However, some companies find quality control one of the most stressful and time-consuming parts of the process. It requires close attention to detail and focus. Luckily, robotics can help with this, especially when AI is combined with physical food packaging robots.
Businesses can turn quality checks into a fast, efficient process using an AI function known as computer vision or machine vision. AI machine vision software can be trained to recognize defective products using images of good and bad quality units. This can result in the rapid, efficient production of consistently high-quality food packaging. Robotic process automation in the quality control process lets businesses rest assured that every unit of their food packaging makes a good impression on customers and protects their products.
6. Rapid Multi-Stage Packaging
Food packaging is a detailed, multistep process that can get quite complicated. Robots can streamline multi-stage packaging with rapid, automated boxing and palletizing. Robotics can completely transform the process from primary to tertiary boxing. New types of gripper technology even make primary packaging for delicate foods easy. There is plenty of flexibility for businesses’ unique circumstances and priorities for this particular application.
For example, a company could use collaborative food packaging robots for the secondary process so human employees can handle delicate or complex primary work. Likewise, palletizing could be completely automated with robotics to maximize efficiency. Products are already sealed when they get to secondary packaging, so food and beverage companies don’t need to worry about any industrial contamination when using robots here. This makes the various packing steps a good place to integrate robots for businesses that may be new to them.
7. Packaging and Facility Sanitation
Everyone in the food and beverage industry knows the importance of diligent Sanitation and cleanliness in food production areas. Rigorous cleaning policies and whole teams of maintenance personnel used to be the main solutions businesses had for keeping packaging facilities clean. Over the past few years, events have sparked a key innovation in robotics that is becoming popular in numerous industries, including food and beverage.
UV disinfection (UVD) robots may be the perfect sanitizing solution for food packaging businesses. These machines use UV light rays to disinfect surfaces without any physical contact or liquid cleaning solutions. The robot autonomously roves around a programmed path through a facility and uses its light to kill viruses and bacteria.
These robots are already appearing in grocery stores worldwide. Their dry, contact-free nature is particularly convenient for food packaging businesses. A UVD robot is a great way to fill any gaps the maintenance team leaves and ensure packaging is as clean and safe as possible. This is especially important as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to mutate and is a good idea overall to keep shoppers safe and protect their health.
Innovating With Food Packaging Robots
Robotics is rapidly changing how businesses operate, bringing innovative solutions to today’s food packaging challenges. Integrating food packaging robots into packaging operations lets companies improve efficiency, productivity, and product quality while reducing costs, waste, and production time.
Cobots offer a way to combine the advantages and skills of robots and employees. Robots are even helping cutting-edge food packaging companies produce next-generation packaging designs and sustainable materials. As a result, businesses can use these robotic applications to improve their products and offer customers clean, reliable, innovative packaging.