Robots are bringing about the most innovative ways to process and package food that enhances food sanitation and safety – and they present opportunities to delegate specific tasks that are ergonomically dangerous and challenging for human employees. In general, the food industry has been relatively slow in adopting robotics for several reasons.
But experts agree that robots are slowly and gradually modifying the food industry, and many companies are at risk of staying behind if they don't implement the new technology of food robotics . Read on this guide to see how robotics affects the food industry and what they hold for the future.
History and Market of Robotics in the Food Industry
The word “robot” comes from the Czechoslovakian word “robota,” which signifies forced labor. According to the International Standards Organization, robots are defined as automatically controlled, multipurpose, reprogrammable, manipulative machines with various levels of freedom, either mobile or fixed in place for use in industrial automation applications.
Two of the most significant manufacturing sectors that purchase and invest in robots are electronics and automotive , which mass-produce items with tons of separate components that require accurate assembling. Other industries like the healthcare sector are also swiftly adopting robots into their workflow.
The food industry is one specific area where robots are not significantly present. For the majority of people, the first exposure to robotics in food processing was while watching one of the most famous futuristic cartoons in our childhood: The Jetsons. Today, however, the use of food robotics is fairly common.
As per the International Federation of Robots, there was a sale of 240,000 units worldwide in 2015, representing an 8% rise in annual growth worldwide. The most significant growth can be seen in Brazil, where sales are rising by a whopping 33% every year.
Moreover, the Worldwide Robotics Markets was valued at $27.73 billion in 2021 and is expected to reach a whopping $74.1 billion by 2026, registering at an impressive compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 17.45% during the period of 2021-2026.
The early uses of robots in food processing were mainly for palletizing and packaging operations. However, until recently, robotics has been used in roughly 26% of food and beverage packaging lines and 40% of palletizing operations.
When compared to the work done by human workers, a 25% increase in productivity has been reported by food industry manufacturers since employing robots.
Despite the market value of robotics in the food industry being projected to rise from $1.3 billion to $2.5 billion by 2022, there's still under 2% of total global spending on robotics. This indicates there is significant room for development in food robotics, which many food companies are willing to explore.
Robotics in Food Manufacture
Autonomous food manufacturing might just be the key to dealing with the ever-increasing food demand. In 2017, the value of the international food automation industry was projected to double and reach approximately $2.5 billion by 2022.
The Asia-Pacific market is a significant driver due to the high popularity of ready-to-eat meals in that corner of the world. Food manufacture can be divided into 2 different stages:
- Primary processing : The raw animal or plant products are extracted or converted into food commodities that may either be sold as-is or go further into secondary processing. Raw products are washed, sorted, transported, and then blended. Robotic applications comprise butchery and vegetable and fruit sorting, e.g., wheat milling.
- Secondary processing: Food commodities are processed and turned into edible items. The ingredients are brought together to form new food products by baking, cooking, freezing, etc. Robotic applications consist of sorting the products, removing defects, and mixing.
Robots are gradually being integrated into both the primary and seconding food processing with differing levels of success due to the changing levels of uniformity in the raw materials that each step begins with.
Robotic applications are better suited to secondary processing since the food items have become more standardized by then. Still, there's been an emergence in primary processing robots, and companies are now starting to more of them.
Robotics in Food Packaging
Food packaging robots have been integrated into various parts of the food supply chain for quite a while. However, the latest development is that the complete process of packaging can be automated. The food packaging can be categorized into three different stages:
- Primary packaging: In this stage, individual foods are packaged. For instance, a pick-and-place robot places the sweets into plastic containers.
- Secondary packaging: In this stage, the individual packages are assembled together. For instance, a different pick-and-place robot stacks those plastic containers into a larger box.
- Tertiary packaging: In this stage, secondary packages are grouped together for shipping. For instance, a palletizing robot places many boxes onto a pallet.
It appears likely that automated packaging will continue to be one of the primary applications in the food sector.
Robotics in Food Delivery
Robotic food delivery has also recently been getting a significant amount of press. For instance, sometime earlier, Domino’s Pizza announced that it would be launching self-governing ground vehicles for the delivery of pizzas, following their first successful delivery drone at the end of 2016.
While self-governing food delivery might appear somewhat as “just the latest fad,” it actually addresses an escalating market trend. In recent years, the demand for restaurant-quality, home-delivered, ready-to-eat meals has seen a tremendous spike in demand.
The global taste for takeaway is undoubtedly changing the food industry. Hence, autonomous food delivery is bound to become widespread.
Commercial Applications of Robots in the Food Industry
This section reviews some of the primary areas of commercial application of robotics in the food industry.
Packaging and Palletizing
Packaging and palletizing are two of the most prevalent applications for food-handling robots at present. As mentioned above, food robots are used in primary packaging, which is that stage of the line where the food is packed into the container, wrapper, or a vacuum-sealed bag.
Then comes secondary and tertiary packaging, which are also prevalent applications for robots in the food industry. On the other hand, palletizing represents an extra-large and broad market for food robotics.
For instance, new classes of automated systems with enhanced capabilities to handle less rigid objects with more significant variability in shape, size, and orientation are expanding the implementation of food robotics.
Companies are bringing in vision-guided systems that can identify and locate the centers of separately packed products. Each robot can utilize this information together with the conveyor encoder to keep track of the line and pick products in motion.
Meat processing is an area that involves several operations for which human workers are not ideally suited. Consequently, the use of robotics in meat processing is on the rise. This includes cutting, sorting, and packaging the meat.
Workers in refrigerated cold boxes and freezers are not suitable or favorable to human comfort. In contrast, robots can easily work under harsh conditions without any problems or interruptions. Cutting and trimming carcasses can be tricky for workers, even the most experienced ones. Luckily, robotics can work repeatedly and with the utmost precision, without any risks.
There is also a high chance for human employees to potentially taint the food items with bacteria and/or pathogens from certain illnesses. This is where robots can do the job far better by being highly sanitized. They also have the bonus of not falling prone to diseases like humans.
One such process where robots have been integrated more successfully than others is deboning chicken legs. There are more minor variations in the dimensions of a chicken leg, so several companies have established an assembly line system that can successfully break down a chicken leg piece into individual parts.
Most of these machines can debone over 100 chicken leg pieces per minute, indicating they’re considerably more efficient than human workers can ever be.
Shoulder and ham deboning robots are equipped with software to use x-ray detection to automatically determine the right or left side of the shoulder or ham. They can also successfully assess the length or width of the bones to detect the joints and ensure a better yield.
This system simply does not cut the meat off the bone. Instead, it debones the meat by dismantling, sparing the meat from the knife or sharp utensils’ damage, and ultimately enhancing the product's final quality.
Beef butchery is still a process robots cannot handle on their own, as they differ much more in size and shape than chicken legs. Moreover, human butchers rely more on touch than sight while butchering beef.
However, automated meat processing solutions utilizing robots do exist, that include distinctive robots to break down beef carcasses. One robot is pre-programmed to create a 3-dimensional model of each carcass of beef for the robotic arms to use as a point of reference while cutting various sections of the beef.
The process also consists of robots designed to sort and package each cut. Contemporary meat processing robots can mechanically eviscerate about 360 carcasses per hour.
Computerized milking systems are one example of incorporating robotics in dairy processing. They were initially developed in the early 1990s in Europe and eventually introduced in 2000 in the United States.
Robotic milking is voluntary, which allows the cows to set their own milking schedules. These automated systems in dairy processing have many advantages, including increased milking frequency, economic benefits, cow health and welfare benefits, and management benefits.
Robots are also mainly used in cheese processing for slicing cheese, stirring curds, and packaging. Altogether, robots can slice up to 12,000 portions of cheese per hour.
Food Service Applications
Robots are also gradually making their way into the foodservice industry. They can carry out an array of kitchen tasks, everything from mixing to chopping ingredients. For instance, one restaurant in China incorporates the use of more than a dozen robots to cook the food and deliver them to customers.
Robots greet the customers, carry and deliver dishes to the tables, and cook food. Each robot can comprehend 40 daily sentences and costs roughly $6,500. There has also been the development of cocktail-making robots, and robotic bartenders function just like human bartenders. Pancakes, sushi, and noodle-making robots are widely used in several areas of China and Japan.
One classic example of robots in use is cake decorating. Mass-produced cakes have similar decorations and the same dimensions. Thus, robots can be easily encoded to apply icing on the cakes in a specific outline.
Some robots also permit human employees to input tailored designs to decorate each cake, opening up the opportunity to always create intricate designs and patterns that a human cake decorator might typically take longer to complete.
Another area where robots are seeking ways of entry is pizza-making. Pizzas call for frequent rotations in the oven, which can be unsafe for humans, especially if they are needed to be produced in high numbers.
Some solutions exist utilizing robots that can help in the low-level tasks included in pizza making, such as in-oven rotating and dough mixing. This could free human employees to focus on creating new sauce and topping combinations and create a safer work environment where they do not need to stick their arms into the hot oven to rotate pizzas.
Food delivery is another up-and-coming and progressive area for robotics in the food industry. Starship Technologies in Washington, D.C., introduced a robotic delivery service where robots pick up orders from cafes and restaurants and deliver them to customers.
These robots can carry up to 20 pounds and go 4 miles per hour on the sidewalk. They’re remote-controlled, and each robot is equipped with alarms that will go off if anybody tries to pick it up. Moreover, they’re equipped with cameras to record every step and activity they engage in.
The lids of the food items can only be unlocked by customers via a code or an app. Another company in San Francisco called Marble is also deploying robots for food deliveries. Dispatch is another company exploring this impressive space, which signifies that robotics in food delivery is not far from being widespread.
The Advantages and Challenges of Robotics in the Food Industry
The advantages of incorporating robotics in food processing are quite attractive. Robots can achieve consistency in their results quicker than human workers can. Safety and health concerns are less of an issue with robots that are specifically designed to handle extreme working conditions like high temperatures.
They are especially useful in conducting repetitive processes, covering everything from chicken deboning and meat processing to cake decorating. Moreover, robots can significantly help decrease the cost of production via producing higher yields with absolutely no need for breaks or undergoing training. Here are the many advantages of bringing in robots in the food industry:
- Reduced requirements for intensive human labor.
- The ability to perform operations that are significantly unfit and undesirable for humans.
- The ability to carry out tasks and procedures that are challenging to perform manually by human workers.
- Reductions in on-the-job injuries.
- Productivity increases.
- Improvements in safety
- Enhancements in flexibility.
- Improvements in final product quality.
- Increases in order fulfillment accuracy and speed.
- Cost reductions.
- Increases in uptime.
On the other hand, a significant challenge in adopting robotics into the food industry stems from the certainty that all the raw materials entering into the pipelines might not have the standard dimensions that can be encoded into a robot.
For instance, a robot engineered to attach a car door can be easily programmed to consider the car door’s dimension as those dimensions remain the same for a specific type of car. However, this is not the case with peeling fruits or vegetables.
Because raw products have inconsistent dimensions, robots that need to be pre-programmed to work on a default set of dimensions might be appropriate for this task. For instance, robots designed for peeling apples are more difficult to program as no two or five apples have the same dimensions.
Another challenge in secondary food processing is ensuring human employees can keep pace with the robots they work with. This is not much of a concern in factory lines where products are released in batches. Still, human workers can be astonished in restaurants where orders have to be made and driven out to customers as they’re received.
In the coming 20 years, several activities that human workers perform while packaging, processing, and delivering food products are bound to become fully automated. Robotics will be used in areas where it economically and technically makes sense.
Complex tasks will be computerized, and collaborative robots (cobots) will work alongside humans. Robots will be a lot smarter and engaged and communicate with each other more effectively. They’re likely to become as universal in our lives and in the food industry as smartphones have become in recent years.
The challenges faced by various food industry areas primarily depend on the raw materials put into each sector and whether the product delivery needs to be continuous or can be done in batches of shipments.
Giving robots the ability to evaluate each raw material before they get treated might be the key in primary processes, whereas training human workers to work collaboratively with robots might be a more significant issue in secondary processes.
As a whole, the food industry should confront where robots could be a potential and beneficial investment as well as understand how to transition its human workers out of the roles robots are slowly taking over.