Flexible robots are revolutionizing food production, packaging, and processing. They are the latest advancement in pick-and-place robot technology, capable of handling even the most delicate products. Numerous variations are available today, and virtually any food production company can find the perfect gripper to evolve their automated operations.
There are numerous benefits to adopting flexible robots in food production, from increased productivity to improved food safety. Many advantages of integrating flexible robots into food production processes are available, and a few, in particular, stand out. Here are the top five benefits they offer and how they are uniquely suited to benefit food companies.
1. Rapid Processing for All Types of Products
The clearest benefit of flexible robots in food production is their broad applicability. Countless products need to be handled delicately to maintain their shape. Automating packaging or production for these items is naturally difficult with stiff, traditional pick-and-place robots. Flexible or “soft” robots provide a highly advantageous alternative, opening the door to rapid processing for virtually any item.
A single type of flexible robotic gripper could even be used to produce numerous food items. One model designed by Soft Robotics uses pressurized air to precisely adjust the amount of force the fingers apply to objects. The design was inspired by squids, octopi, and starfish, with soft rubber fingers that are inflated in such a way that they can actuate and lift objects.
“We saw that as a breakthrough technology that could bring human-like dexterity in a simple compliant form factor to robotics,” Carl Vause, Soft Robotics CEO, commented on the design in an interview. As Vause points out, the human-like dexterity of flexible robots is arguably their greatest advantage. They can pick up all kinds of objects and can do so in a highly controlled, precise manner, just like a human hand.
The same gripper model could be used across numerous product lines by adjusting the air pressure. The same methodology applies to most flexible grippers since they are generally designed for precise customization in applied force. Using one gripper across numerous products simplifies robotics purchasing and management for food production companies.
2. Improved Food Safety and Cleanliness
Food safety is a major concern today. The COVID-19 pandemic got everyone thinking more about where their food comes from and how it’s handled. The World Health Organization estimates that every year, 600 million people worldwide experience illness due to contaminated food. The spread of bacteria alone poses a significant threat to safety. As a result, companies have to do everything they can to ensure customers feel they can trust that what they eat is safe.
Flexible robotics presents a great opportunity to improve food safety and cleanliness in production lines. Contact with other people can be limited by automating as much of the process as possible. A sterile flexible robotic gripper can perform tasks rather than having an employee handle item, such as placing pastries in containers.
Of course, all food production companies ensure employees are washing their hands and practicing clean behaviors in the workplace. However, someone may not realize they’ve caught an illness or accidentally spread bacteria from one food item or surface to another. Accidents happen from time to time in any workplace. These concerns can be virtually eliminated by using a robot, though.
Additionally, automating with flexible robots removes employees from hands-on jobs on production lines, which could improve workplace safety and employee experience.
3. Precision and Consistency
Flexible robots are by no means limp or clumsy. These grippers have incredible precision and accuracy. For example, one model uses vision guidance to pick and place 100 items per minute with consistent accuracy. The gripper can still successfully handle objects even if they are randomly scattered on a conveyor belt.
Consistency is a major advantage of note here. It is one thing to have a flexible robot that can easily handle delicate items. It is even more impressive for one to handle complex tasks with consistent accuracy and precision around the clock. That’s what today’s flexible robots are capable of, though.
This consistent precision and accuracy completely automate the processing of soft foods, from pastries to fruits and vegetables. Food production companies can increase their efficiency and overall productivity by producing, processing, and packaging items that otherwise would have needed to be handled manually.
Ironically, the difficulty of handling these foods makes flexible grippers great at what they do. They need to be extremely precise because some things are so delicate they could be ruined without that consistent precision. This offers a level of reliability in performance that is more difficult to find in other types of robots.
4. Reduced Downtime With Pick-and-Place Robots
Flexible robots can also significantly reduce downtime in food production. This is due to a combination of inevitable human error and the natural efficiency of automation. Everyone makes mistakes but can cost valuable time on the production line.
This is stressful for everyone involved, including employees, especially considering that delicate foods already require significant concentration to handle. Automating production and processing with flexible robotics reduces this element of stress and the risk of human error causing downtime.
Another major factor to consider is how long employees can be on the job. Everyone needs breaks during the day and typically only spends about 40 hours a week at work, which can cap productivity. However, food production companies can achieve around-the-clock activity with flexible robotics. They can greatly expand their operating hours, whether fully automate their operations or blend employee hours with fully automated processes.
For example, one vegetarian and gourmet food producer in Northern Europe operates 24/7 with only 30 employees. Flexible robots are the key to making that possible. Workers even found that the robots were easy to use and work with. They could quickly switch between products, easily swapping out shrimp packaging for olive packaging programs. Thanks to gentle grippers, virtually any food production can be automated to achieve this productivity, minimizing downtime and increasing revenue.
This is especially valuable today since the manufacturing industry is struggling with a labor shortage. The National Association of Manufacturers estimates that over 2 million manufacturing jobs could go unfilled by 2030. Food production companies may be left in a difficult position due to a lack of employees. Flexible robots can fill those gaps and boost productivity even further, allowing existing workers to make more out of less.
5. Efficient Packaging and Palletizing
Flexible robots aren’t only applicable in food production — they can also help with packaging and palletizing, even in large quantities. Studies show that 46% of food production robots are used for primary and secondary packaging, and another 47% are used for palletizing. Traditional robots may be better suited for palletizing, but this is not always the case. Flexible robots may be the key to automating packaging for delicate food items.
Flexible robots are useful for handling delicate or flexible packaging in addition to foods. Packaging produced or moved around in-house could be automated, increasing efficiency. A matrix of grippers can be used to handle numerous items in one motion. This also allows for the consistent organization of food items in their packaging.
Innovating With Flexible Robots in Food Production
Flexible robots allow all types of food production companies to access the many benefits of automation. Foods that were thought impossible for robots to handle, like marshmallows or egg yolks, are now well within their grasp. Numerous technologies fit different objects but offer a particularly high number of applications in food production.
Pick-and-place robots can get the job done, whether an item is best served by a soft pneumatic model, suction gripper, or anything in between. Food production companies can use them to innovate their operations, improving food safety, 24/7 productivity, greater efficiency, and a better employee and customer experience.