Editorial Feature

Do Robots Struggle to Handle Delicate Food?

The development of robots has created new opportunities for the food sector by enabling the automation of several procedures, including food preparation, packing, and delivery. However, one question that has emerged is whether robots can handle delicate food with the same finesse as humans.

Do Robots Struggle to Handle Delicate Food?

Image Credit: mady70/Shutterstock.com

What Are Delicate Foods?

The foods that require careful handling and safety from external pressure, temperature and moister to preserve their quality, texture, flavor and delicacy are known as delicate foods. For example, bakery products like pastries and cakes are sensitive to temperature and humidity changes, and overexposure to heat or moisture can cause them to dry out, become stale, or lose shape.

Similarly, overhandling of shellfish can damage their flavor, making them unappetizing and unsafe to eat, triggering a need to be handled with care to prevent spoilage or contamination.

Challenges of Handling Delicate Foods

Adaptability and Sensitivity

Handling delicate food is challenging for both humans and robots as it requires precision and sensitivity to maintain the food's integrity. Even slight pressure or contamination can damage the food. The variability of delicate food, such as fresh produce, adds to the challenge, making standardization difficult and automation more complex.

Despite advancements in handling delicate food, robots still struggle to match the sensitivity and dexterity of human hands due to limitations in detecting texture and shape variations and adapting to unpredictable environments.

Researchers are improving robotic adaptability and sensitivity using soft robots made of flexible materials that mimic human skin and muscles, providing a gentler touch and better adapting to delicate food shapes and textures for tasks like sorting and picking.

Gripping Delicate Food

A whole chapter in a 2013 study has been dedicated to the challenges of gripping food objects and the available solutions. The study suggests that while conventional pinch-gripping technologies have been successful in many industrial applications, they face significant challenges in the food industry due to the soft, limp, and unstructured nature of food objects. As a result, there is a need to develop new gripping methods based on penetrating, suction, and freeze technologies.

The chapter explores the governing equations of pinching and suction gripping and the hygienic quality of different methods. The suitability of different methods for food handling is also qualitatively evaluated, with a focus on soft gripping.

Challenges in Robotic Handling of Foods

A study published in 2022 discusses the challenges in handling food via robotics and automation technologies. The study found that the most significant challenges in the robotic handling of foods are the design of robotic end-effectors to handle a wide variety of food items with high practicability and low cost, the ability to recognize food items in a 3D environment, and a better understanding of basic information about food products, such as food classification and physical characteristics, from the perspective of robotic handling.

Recent Developments

Robotic Manipulation of Delicate Foods

A study published in 2022 developed a fracture-anticipation system for delicate food ingredients during robotic food manipulation without irreversible failure. The system used a tactile sensing module and a simple recurrent neural network to anticipate when delicate foods would fracture during manipulation, allowing the robot to handle ingredients without irreversible failure.

The key idea was to allow the robot to break ingredients during training-sample collection, using signal processing to identify the timing of fractures for supervision.

The proposed method successfully predicted fractures for three typical delicate foods, including tofu, bananas and potato chips, and can be used for other types of food manipulation. This system can be used for robotic cooking assistance and food preparation in factories as well as restaurants, which have high expectations but are non-trivial due to the fragility of food.

Soft Robotic Fingers based on the Fin Ray Effect for Delicate Food Handling

Similarly, another 2019 study introduced a solution to automate the handling of delicate food products using soft robotic fingers based on the Fin Ray effect. The proposed Soft Fin Ray fingers were made of a flexible material (NinjaFlex) and featured thin ribs that improved their ability to adapt to delicate foods. To compensate for their reduced force generation, the angle and spacing of the flexible ribs were experimentally tested.

The test results indicated that layer jamming between tilted flexible ribs could significantly enhance force generation while maintaining minimal contact forces for grasping delicate foods at small displacements.

Future Prospects

The future of robots in the food industry looks promising as advancements are being made in robotics and automation. Artificial intelligence and machine learning could enhance the capabilities of robots, allowing them to adapt to new challenges and handle delicate produce with greater precision. In addition, material science and engineering advances could lead to the development of soft and flexible robots that mimic human hands. With continued research and investment, robots are expected to improve the efficiency, safety, and quality of food processing and handling.

Continue reading: Efficient and Accurate Food Portioning and Cutting

References and Further Reading

Elgeneidy, K., Lightbody, P., Pearson, S., & Neumann, G. (2019). Characterising 3D-printed soft fin ray robotic fingers with layer jamming capability for delicate grasping. In 2019 2nd IEEE International Conference on Soft Robotics (RoboSoft). IEEE. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/abstract/document/8722715

Grobbelaar, W., Verma, A., & Shukla, V. K. (2021). Analyzing human robotic interaction in the food industry. In Journal of Physics: Conference Series. IOP Publishing. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1742-6596/1714/1/012032/meta

Ishikawa, R., Hamaya, M., Von Drigalski, F., Tanaka, K., & Hashimoto, A. (2022). Learning by Breaking: Food Fracture Anticipation for Robotic Food Manipulation. IEEE Access. https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?arnumber=9894412

Lien, T. K. (2013). Gripper technologies for food industry robots. In Robotics and automation in the food industry. Woodhead Publishing. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/B9781845698010500074

Wang, Z., Hirai, S., & Kawamura, S. (2022). Challenges and opportunities in robotic food handling: A review. Frontiers in Robotics and AI. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frobt.2021.789107/full

What is delicate food? all you need to know. (2022). Retrieved from https://foodsalternative.com/delicate-food/

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the author expressed in their private capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of AZoM.com Limited T/A AZoNetwork the owner and operator of this website. This disclaimer forms part of the Terms and conditions of use of this website.

Taha Khan

Written by

Taha Khan

Taha graduated from HITEC University Taxila with a Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering. During his studies, he worked on several research projects related to Mechanics of Materials, Machine Design, Heat and Mass Transfer, and Robotics. After graduating, Taha worked as a Research Executive for 2 years at an IT company (Immentia). He has also worked as a freelance content creator at Lancerhop. In the meantime, Taha did his NEBOSH IGC certification and expanded his career opportunities.  

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