Robot grasping is based on materials science rather than programming.

Soft Robotics uses materials science for dexterous robot grasping rather than more complicated methods.

April 30, 2017      

Robots are increasingly moving into the primary side of the food industry, according to Sebastien Schmitt, robotic division manager at Staubli North America. Automation is also enjoying steady growth in the secondary end of the business, he said.

The market for robotics in the food and beverage industry will experience a 29% compound annual growth rate from 2015 through 2019, predicts a Technavio report. The research firm cited drivers such as the demand for clean and contamination-free production areas. MarketsandMarkets forecasts that the food robotics market will be worth $2.5 billion by 2022.

Countries such as Japan, the U.S., South Korea, and Australia have a higher demand for industrial robots in their food and beverage companies, said Technavio.

Suppliers are quickly expanding the ability for robot end users to change parameters on the fly for products of different shapes and sizes. Features include programmable speed controls and monitoring of position, force, and quality, said Ed Neff, president of SMAC Moving Coil Actuators, at the ProFood Tech event in Chicago this past month.

Such improvements mean increased output, improved quality, and reduced expenses, particularly in food and liquid processing.

Business Takeaways:

  • Improvements in machine vision, manipulation of varied objects, and automation in harsh environments will lead to strong robotics growth in the food industry, said experts.
  • The need to comply with safety regulations distinguishes food robotics from other automation, but adoption is likely to increase.
  • Collaborative robots could allow robotics to spread throughout the food industry, from agriculture through packaging, retail, and cooking.

Getting a grip on produce

The food industry is a large and fast-growing segment for robotic automation, noted Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

“Some food segments are new to robotics and will have a steeper learning curve than the established robotics user base,” he said. “It’s critical for the integrator and the supplier to educate the market.”

Soft Robotics Raises $5M for Flexible Fingers

Soft Robotics’ compliant grippers are good for handling fruit and vegetables.

Soft Robotics sells soft robotic grippers designed to handle products of different sizes and shapes. The tension of the grippers can be adjusted so that robots can firmly grasp produce such as a tomato without squeezing too hard and damaging it.

Today’s robots can pick, pack, and palletize structured objects such as crates, cartons, and boxes, making them a natural fit for the food processing industry, Vause added.

Automation is becoming more common in all aspects of the food industry, from precision agriculture to logistics and restaurants.

Robots in secondary food handling

Robots are much easier to add into the secondary phase of the production process, because that is where item sizes are more standardized. But even in these environments, there is increasing call for sanitary wash-down and monitoring capabilities, according to Staubli’s Schmitt.

Robots are now moving more into primary food production such as meat, dairy, and cereal processing. People typically don’t want to work in harsh environments such as refrigerated warehouses or hot and humid food-preparing environments. By contrast, Schmitt said, robots can reliably handle such work.

A big difference between the food industry and others is that it has strict precautions against contamination, he said.

Safety rules tighten

Those standards have become more stringent recently. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which came into effect over 2015 and 2016, requires food processing facilities to be able to monitor their compliance with regulations. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t rely on company monitoring alone, so it inspects facilities as well.

Beyond maintaining product safety in the processing environment, companies must also be able to trace products from their entry to the facility to their exit. This helps safety regulators trace any contamination, not only in the plant, but also back to the original product supplier. This is essential to identifying the source of any bacteria or other contaminant.

Staubli’s TX90XLHE line of humid environment robots are specifically designed for food processing, pharmaceutical, and similar environments in which FDA/CE safety standards apply. They offer an enclosed structure, with all cables routed internally, and exteriors that are easily cleanable, according to Schmitt.

At the Seafood Traders GmbH in Germany, four of the units have been working on high-grade fish fillet and fish stick packaging lines since 2011.

Nearly all six-axis machines as well as the TP80 fast picker are available in humid environment (HE) versions, so they can perform in environments with high humidity, water spray, or liquid coolants.

More on Food and Supply Chain Automation:

Looking ahead in the food industry

In the future, Schmitt expects the food industry to start adopting collaborative robots. As with other types of automation, he said the success of cobots in the automotive industry will lead to increasing use in other industries.

Robotics suppliers such as Staubli North America and Soft Robotics will need to continue to innovate and differentiate themselves from competitors in the food industry marketplace, said Josue Villalta, a partner at law firm Knobbe Martens.