Robots reach for food processing

18th April, 2022.      //   General Interest, Technology  // 

Robots used in industrial production line of bakery products.

The processing of food at high volumes has traditionally posed many problems for robots and cobots, and has lagged behind other industries. Foods have a variety of shapes and sizes and can be delicate in nature. The often highly variable poses challenge when a robot tries to grasp an item. The delicate often has strict requirements for quality, making them even harder to grasp .

Non-automotive robot orders now represent 58% of the North American total. Unit sales to the food and consumer goods sector alone increased 29% in 2021 over 2020, according to Association for Advancing Automation (A3).

“More industries recognized that robotics could help reverse productivity declines and fill repetitive jobs human workers don’t want. It is no longer a choice whether to deploy robots and automation,” says Jeff Burnstein, president of A3. “It’s now an absolute imperative. As we’ve long believed—and users continue to confirm—robots help companies compete, ultimately creating more jobs to handle their growth.”

Both robots and cobots are used in various ways in both primary and secondary food processing, A3 shares. Some common and emerging applications include:

  • Pick and place of fruits and vegetables
  • Robotic cutting and slicing for seafood or beef
  • Robotic dispensing for cake decorating
  • Robotic cleaning to maintain safe working environments
  • Vision-guided sorting robots for produce
  • Palletizing and depalletizing (packaging)

Some robots can even make pizzas without any human intervention.

Cobots

Unlike industrial robots, collaborative robots work alongside humans. They do not replace them. Cobots are easy to program, which allows food and beverage producers quickly adapt to new products and delivery requirements. Collaborative robot arms can be reprogrammed, moved and redeployed, so even smaller facilities can run multiple lines or switch from production to packaging in the same floor space.

Cobots typically are easier to program than typical industrial robots, as they can be programmed by non-experts and are preferred for fast implementation. They are seen in material handling, assembly, material removal, quality inspections and food packaging, among other uses.

End of arm tools

According to A3, one of the most important advances in robotic technology for food processing has been the introduction of more advanced grippers. Today there are soft grippers that can quickly, yet gently, handle sensitive food products such as fruits and vegetables. Other types of grippers, such as vacuum grippers, have also shown promise in handling delicate or irregularly shaped items. Many advanced grippers are paired with robust robotic vision technology to guide the robotic arm, allowing it to compensate for variations in product shape. This creates greater accuracy and consistency in processing applications.

Cobots use grippers, whether vacuum grippers, pneumatic grippers, hydraulic grippers or servo-electric grippers, to handle items. The vacuum gripper uses a rubber or polyurethane suction cup to pick up items and offers a high degree of flexibility.

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