Robotic food manufacturing is a rising trend in the food industry. The ROBOTS Association, Switzerland, introduced six robotic applications in food processing.

Top 3 robotic applications in primary food processing

Primary processing involves handling raw food products, which are cleaned, sorted, chopped, packaged, etc. Some foods, like raw vegetables, will only undergo primary processing before they are packaged for the consumer. Other foods will undergo secondary processing before packaging.

Up until quite recently, robotic processing at this stage has been limited or non-existent. Raw foods are variable in size, weight and shape, which makes it difficult for robotics handling. However, recent developments in sensing and soft gripping has made it possible for robots to handle many raw foods.

1. Robotic butchery

Butchery is a very difficult task to automate. Every animal carcass is different. A skilled butcher will adapt each cut to the shape and position of bones and meat. Some butchery tasks are simpler to automate than others. For example, high-volume chicken leg deboning is an established part of the meat processing industry.

Beef butchery has traditionally been very difficult to automate. However, beef manufacturer JBS, Greeley, Colo., has started looking for ways to introduce robots into their factories. Parts of the process are very dangerous for human workers. Rib cutting, for instance, involves operating a high-speed circular saw for several hours. JBS has managed to automate this action using robot manipulators and various vision sensors, which also helps improve safety and product consistency.

2. Fruit and vegetable pick and place

Fruits and vegetables are challenging to handle with a robot due to their variable sizes and shapes. They also require delicate handling to avoid damage. For these reasons, they have traditionally been handled by human workers. However, recent developments in gripping technologies look to change all that. 

Soft Robotics Inc., Cambridge, Mass., introduced a flexible gripper, designed to handle very delicate foods, even individual lettuce leaves.

Another example is a gripper from Lacquey Robot Grasping Solutions, the Netherlands, which uses paddles to lift soft fruits and vegetables.

3. Robotic cutting and slicing

Some cutting and slicing tasks are easy to automate. For example, even kitchen food processors can slice vegetables into uniform shapes. Robots are not needed for this type of simple automation.

For more advanced cutting and slicing, however, the food industry has relied on human workers, but robotics is starting to make its way into the industry. Fish cutting, for instance, involves detecting and removing defects from the fish as well as cutting fillets to uniform shapes and sizes.

Top 3 robotic applications in secondary food processing

Secondary processing involves handling products that have already undergone primary processing. Robots have been used for several applications, particularly pick and place. However, recent developments have opened the door to even more advanced applications.

1. Product pick and place

High-speed delta robots are used to move food products around a production line. It is distinct from the vegetable pick and place because the products are more uniform in shape and size. Uniform foods are easier to handle robotically, so this application has been available in the food industry for many years.

2. Cake decorating

Another application is robotic cake decoration. This involves using a robotic arm much like a 3D printer to pipe icing onto a cake. The Deco-Bot from Unifiller, Canada, can pipe hand-drawn decorations onto cakes on a moving conveyor. 

Cake cutting can also be done robotically, like the waterjet cutting robot from Katana, Canada, which cuts out intricate shapes in cakes using high-pressure water.

3. Pizza making

Artisan food producers sometimes worry that adding robots to their process will make their products less “hand-made.” However, Zume Pizza, Mountain View, Calif., shows how robots can be produced to look like they have the human touch. Their pizzeria uses two robots—a delta robot to spread the tomato sauce and an ABB manipulator to tend the pre-baking ovens.

Washing up

Robotic food processing has the potential to reduce foodborne illnesses by removing human workers from parts of the process, but this is only possible if the robots themselves do not cause contamination.

One of the more challenging issues for food automation is the fact that every piece of machinery must be thoroughly cleaned to avoid contamination. Robotics manufacturers are working to make their robot casings smoother, with better ingress ratings and no loose wires. This allows them to be thoroughly washed down at the end of each cycle.

For instance, JMP Automation, Canada, manufactures robots that washdown the work-cell with high-powered water.