The earlier use of robots in the food industry, controlled by strict health & safety regulations, was limited to packaging and palletizing in dairy, beverages, chocolates, and food tins because they have not met the necessary standards used in direct contact with food.
But in 1998, the launch of the world’s high-speed picking and packing robot named FlexPicker revolutionized the food industry since it can be tailored to a wide range of applications, including the direct and indirect handling of foods, due to the four different variants, creating new opportunities.
The introduction of robots comes with significant potential benefits. Today, most food manufacturing and processing factories incorporate cost-effective robots in their production cycle to ensure higher production volume, operational efficiency, reduction in material movements and vehicle activity, and reduced in-process stages compared to conventional processes.
Besides picking, placing, packaging, and palletizing, robots support the food industry in several different ways, starting from seeding, spraying water, and harvesting to cutting and processing various food products.
In meat processing (particularly beef butchering), which is a complex and dangerous task due to the high-speed cutters and variability in every animal carcass’s shape and size, technological advancements have allowed the robots to adapt to the varying nature of products with the aid of sensors. Sensors calculate each carcass’s dimensions before sending it through to the cutting process, which helps the robot cut meat with precision even at high speed.
Earlier in fruit and vegetable production, the use of robots was limited due to the variation in size, shape, color, and concerns of potential deformation or damage of the product. But the improvements in gripper technology have helped overcome most of these concerns, with robots with increased sensing and sensitivity to pressure being utilized in the handling of delicate products.
Besides, the increased use of machine vision solutions enables robots to handle and sort different vegetables and fruits by differentiating them according to their size, color, shape, and type. Robots can efficiently ensure quality control by picking out rotten or sub-optimal products before packaging. One of the biggest opportunities for robots in the food industry has been for simple pick and place applications for food products with limited variations and less complexity.
After employing robots, food industry manufacturers have recorded an increase in productivity of +25%, compared to the work done by a human chain. However, the speed of execution varies in different food sectors. It depends on several factors like the level of automation carried out, the number of robots deployed, and product variation due to customer demands.
Product variation is a critical factor in the food processing industry. Therefore, the recent trend shows that investment in robotic automation is essential to address competitive challenges by protecting the future of the business and reducing the impact on environmental degradation. Hence, companies are looking for expert robotic solutions specific to the processing line requirement.
Key benefits of using robots in food manufacturing
- Increased hygiene: Eliminates human contact with foodstuffs. Decreased incidents of cross-contamination. Better conformity to legislation. Increased food safety.
- Reduce production cost: Eliminate costs associated with employing, training, and ensuring manual labor. Reduce energy bills as no special lighting or thermal controls required. 24/7 continuous production.
- Reduce material waste: Efficient use of base materials, therefore less waste from scrap. Seamless processing meaning less waste from rejects. By reducing material and product reject waste, capital costs are reduced.
- Increased safety compliance: Able to work in hazardous and unfavorable environments. Take over tedious, repetitive, and mundane jobs. Eliminates work-related injuries; improved employee safety.
- Improve product quality and uniformity: Errors caused by fatigue are eliminated. Efficient process control. High accuracy and seamless processing with high repeatability. Sensors and inspection systems ensure top quality.
- Increase competitive advantage: Instant supply chain responsiveness. Increased product variability, allowing for customization and personalization.
- Increased efficiency: Optimize processes, increasing the speed of production. Increase yield with accurate production. Able to perform 24/7 without breaks. Offline programming allows for production to continue without disruptions.
- Reduce floor space: Proper space utilization as robots can be mounted on walls, floors, and ceilings; high dexterity. Work envelope can be confined and compact.
- Reduce capital costs: No spending on direct labor. ‘‘Lights-Out’’ production.
- Reduce production time: Robot able to reach optimum speed. No delays caused by fatigue, sick leaves, or holidays. Increased productivity.
- Increased flexibility: Quick reconfigurability and switching between processes. Sensor integration allows for the handling of different product varieties. Fast interchangeability. Easy re-scalability up or down. Customization, personalization, and wider varieties.
- Increased reconfigurability: Faster process changes; easily reprogramed. Faster product changes. Faster adaptability to demands. Versatility allows for quick changes. Faster response to market demand; increased competitiveness.