Robotics and food manufacturing – 3 minute read
Robots are now commonplace in almost every industry, and as always, they continue to surprise and revolutionize what we know as work. Even with constant worry among humans that robots are coming to steal jobs and cause massive unemployment, there’s still no doubt that robots make work happen faster and that they are way better than humans.
Of the many industries robots are making a statement in, food manufacturing is a standout. On the surface, food manufacturing doesn’t seem to need robots – it’s a personal process. But it does, especially on a commercial level.
Below we explore how robots are changing the food manufacturing business.
Primary and Secondary Processing
Primary processing is essentially the first part of the handling process. It’s the stage at which raw products or ingredients are prepared, say by cleaning, cutting to size, sorting and more. In the packaging process, primary processing involves packing individual goods into their very first packaging medium.
Some items only require primary processing before they can be sent off to the market. Others have to be sent to the secondary processing stage. Primary processing has always been carried out by hand in most industries and workplaces, requiring lots of individuals doing repetitive tasks all day. Nowadays, with regular technological advancements, robots have become a major presence in the primary processing stage.
Secondary processing occurs to goods or products that have been subjected to primary processing. Tasks here can include anything from cooking to final packaging on a massive scale, baking and cake decoration, movement of items in a processing line and more.
Robotics has always been incorporated in the secondary processing stage for tasks like defect identification and sorting, especially in industries producing millions of products per day. But with new advancements, robotics are doing even more and further proving that anything is possible in the secondary processing stage.
Butchery involves a number of activities that require immense skills and energy, including cutting up animals, cleaning them, skinning them and discarding off any unwanted body parts. Additional tasks include cutting up the collected meat for sale in small quantities or preparing it for packing.
None of those tasks is simple, and in many cases, there are hundreds of animal bodies to deal with every day, especially if the butcher serves a lot of people.
Without robots, butchers usually employ knives, pangas, miles of rope and other near-rudimentary tools. Using these tools, butchers also have to maintain specific cuts as dictated by the buyer. Consequently, every activity takes longer and there’s always a risk of harm.
Robots are, therefore, a wonderful addition to butcheries everywhere. In primary processing, the most employed robotic innovations include vision sensors and robotic manipulators. Both are attached to the high-speed circular saw, a machine used in butcheries to cut similar meat shapes and sizes for lengthy spans of time every day.
The vision sensors improve the saw’s precision while the manipulators automate the whole process such that the saw runs without minute by minute monitoring as before. Ultimately, butcheries employing these robotics have recorded lesser accidents, increased efficiency, increased consistency in meat cut shapes and sizes and other associated benefits.
Fruit and Vegetable Pick and Place
Handling fruits and vegetables is a common activity in the primary processing stage. Sometimes, the fruits get packed into boxes right away. In many other cases, the fruits and vegetables have to be cleaned, cut and prepared for the secondary phase, where they might be further prepared.
Handling is, therefore, the main task at this stage, and industries/work stations have primarily employed humans for the task. The idea is to have them exercise their judgment so that errors are handled. But errors are unavoidable and speed is more than necessary, so many industries now employ robots for this same task.
Initially, robots were deemed an inadequate choice for handling fruits and veggies, especially because they were of varying sizes and quite small sometimes. But with advancements in robotics, it’s no surprise gripper robots have been created. Gripper robots are designed to handle any kind of product, whether as soft as a leaf or as hard as a pear.
Grippers are designed to be flexible to any size too, and they come with textured paddings that ensure no damage is done till the end. The benefits are many; faster work times, increased precision, especially when cutting, minimal supervision and more.
In the secondary processing stage, pick and place robots have been employed for a while. Because the secondary process usually involves a series of processes happening in order, there is a lot of moving of products that needs to be done. Pick and place robots always come in handy here, especially if the items to be moved are of the same size and shape.
The commonest robotic inventions used at this level are the high-speed delta robots used in most factories, and they are lauded for speeding up what would have been a really tiresome, time-centric task.
Cutting and Slicing
The primary processing stage almost always involving cutting of some sort. That can extend to slicing if the items are going to mesh with others during secondary processing, or if they are going to be packed in smaller sizes.
As a task, cutting is easy. It can and has always been done by humans, especially on a smaller scale. For precision, when cutting the same size multiples of any product, some home kitchens already employ automated cutters.
As needs increase, though, factories and larger work stations such as massive kitchens are starting to employ robotic inventions to help automate the cutting and slicing processes. Such robots end up minimizing the risk of accidents while saving time.
They also work harder than humans, and since cutting is a massively repetitive task, their indefatigable nature is a very welcome alternative. Plus, manufacturers can guarantee that there will be no unnecessary errors on the final product, or in the packing process. In a way, they revolutionize the whole process.