In today’s world of complex supply chains, dense populations, and spreading infectious diseases, decontamination is critical in the food industry. Luckily, robots can help. This article, part of a series on robots in the food industry published by AZoRobotics, looks at food robotics and decontamination.
Robots in the Food industry
Automation has been present in industry for over a century, starting with early deployments in automotive manufacturing by companies like Ford. Today, automation is widely used across all manufacturing sectors, including food. The use of robots in food manufacturing dates back to the 1980s and the market for food robotics is currently growing, with most food producers using at least one robotics system.
The global food robotics market was valued at $1.9 billion in 2020, with a predicted CAGR of 13.1% that could take its value to over $4 billion by 2026. In food production, robots must overcome challenges such as avoiding contamination, ensuring consumer safety, working with limited profit margins, meeting high volume and throughput needs, and handling complex supply chains.
The SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic amplified these challenges and necessitated the rapid implementation of new safety protocols by food manufacturers facing a reduced workforce and local lockdowns. This situation has led to increased investment in robotics and automation as a way to ensure business continuity in future pandemics.
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The Importance of Decontamination
Food safety is a critical aspect of food production, and it is the responsibility of manufacturers to ensure that the food they produce is safe for consumption. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that annually, approximately one out of six Americans, or 48 million individuals, are affected by foodborne illnesses, with 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 fatalities.
To mitigate the risk of contamination, food manufacturers must prioritize measures aimed at avoiding the contamination of meat, poultry products, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Contamination can easily be transmitted to food by workers, even those who follow proper hygiene protocols in the food plant. The hands and gloves of food workers, as well as the close proximity in which they work, can act as sources of cross-contamination.
Breaches can also result in costly downtime and product recalls. Manufacturers must employ effective measures to eliminate the risk of contamination and ensure the safety of the food they produce.
Enabling Safe Automatic Food Processing
Robot technology is improving to help keep food production safe.
Soft robotics is a growing field with the potential to revolutionize food manufacturing. Unlike conventional robots that are often too strong for delicate produce, soft robots are built with materials like silicone, which are pliable and flexible, enabling them to handle delicate tasks with care.
Their soft, pneumatic joints and flexible design allow for a wide range of movements, making them ideal for various applications, such as gripping, robotic arms and mobile robots. These robots can complete tasks that require greater adaptability and improve safety in human-robot interactions.
In the food industry, for instance, soft robots equipped with gripper attachments can handle fruits and vegetables without damaging or wasting them. With an air pressure-controlled robotic arm, a soft robot can gently grasp produce without bruising it, which would otherwise render it unusable.
Online food retailers are already using soft robots for food picking. A prime example is US food manufacturer Taylor Farms, which operates an automated warehouse with robot pickers that handle delicate foods with efficiency.
Revolutionizing Food Safety: Innovations in UV Light Robots and Multispectral Analysis
The food industry requires constant innovation and new technology to ensure the safety of its products. One solution is using ultraviolet (UV) light robots, which use UV light to destroy the DNA structure of microorganisms.
The technology has been widely used to disinfect surfaces and rooms and has been adapted for the food industry by putting the UV array on an autonomous mobile robot. The bot is programmed to steer itself close to all surfaces, using sensors, simultaneous localization and mapping technology to navigate autonomously. In the event of an unexpected obstacle, the bot sends an alert to a designated team member to show that the location has not been disinfected.
Another technology used in the food industry is multispectral analysis, which utilizes lasers and various optics to detect defects. Multispectral analysis has been used to detect mycotoxins in grains, seeds, and nuts, by utilizing ultraviolet light to remove contaminated items. Bühler, a European equipment manufacturer, has developed a system called LumoVision that utilizes this technology to improve human health globally by removing contaminated items from the food supply.
Robots can help reduce contamination risks by reducing the number of times food has to be touched by human workers in processing facilities. However, robots themselves must also be safe and decontaminated.
JMP Solutions is a company that offers robotic solutions for applications within food and beverage processing. The company has developed a series of robots that can wash down a full workcell and one another, using high-powered water to conduct a thorough cleanse at the end of each operating cycle.
As well as eliminating contamination risk, these robots also function without electricity to ensure a safer cleaning process.
Lubricants that are to be used in the food industry have very special formulations and are vigorously regulated. An H1 NSF registration confirms that products are suitable for use in applications where any incidental contact might occur between the lubricant and product (food).
Energy supply systems must also conform to NSF H1 standards. This further eliminates any unintentional contact with foods during production, posing a risk to humans.
References and Further Reading
Banker, S. (2020). Decontamination Robots And Industrial Worker Safety. Forbes. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevebanker/2020/05/05/decontamination-robots-and-industrial-worker-safety/?sh=7e4b9a18726a
Chrisandina, N.J. (2018). Robotics in food manufacturing: Benefits and challenges. Prescouter. Available at: https://www.prescouter.com/2018/08/robotics-food-manufacturing-benefits-challenges/
Jarrett, C. (2020). Putting Food Safety First With Robots. Food Industry Executive. Available at: https://foodindustryexecutive.com/2020/07/putting-food-safety-first-with-robots/
Preventing Norovirus Outbreaks. (2019) CDC. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/norovirus/index.html
Robots are conquering the food industry with uncompromising safety features. (2022) Connectivity. Available at: https://www.connectivity4ir.co.uk/article/189799/Robots-are-conquering-the-food-industry-with-uncompromising-safety-features.aspx
Schuster, S. (2021). Robots in the food industry: “Almost the entire industry is asking for automation”. KUKA. Available at: https://www.kuka.com/en-us/company/iimagazine/robots-in-the-food-industry
Stier, R.F. (2020). How processors can use robots to enhance food quality and safety. Food Engineering Mag. Available at: https://www.foodengineeringmag.com/articles/98926-how-processors-can-use-robots-to-enhance-food-quality-and-safety.