Robots' influence growing in the food, packaging industries

Customization and variability are at an all-time high and food producers must keep up with the trends while trying to anticipate the future and robotics' ability to provide flexible automation will be key in making the industry grow.


The global food industry represents nearly $8 trillion of the world's GDP, according to Plunket Research. However, labor shortages, worker safety, and foodborne illnesses are a constant challenge along with rising living standards and changing eating habits in developing countries pressure capacity and throughput.

Consumers want more choices, more convenience, and they want their food to be fresh, fast, and affordable. Customization and variability are at an all-time high and food producers must keep up with the trends while trying to anticipate the future. But it's often difficult to know what's on the menu. Flexible automation is the ticket.

"Automation could do for the food industry what it did for the automotive industry in the '70s," said Carl Vause, CEO of Soft Robotics Inc., a manufacturer of soft-actuating adaptive gripper technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. "It could take this industry to the next level. Drive quality, drive consistency. Make sure they can scale and grow, and meet the demands of the market, and in this case, feed the world."

Robots satisfy labor woes

Feeding the world is proving tougher every year as our population ages and labor costs rise. Innovative automation solutions help tackle the tedious but necessary jobs.

Figure 1: Robots pick and place ice cream bars for subsequent packaging. Courtesy: Robotic Industries Association (RIA), JMP Automation, Inc."We're seeing a major shift in the mindset of our clients, safety being the number one priority for most of our customers," said Keith Allen, client manager for JMP Automation, Inc. "The priority is to get people out of unsafe tasks. There are major ergonomic challenges in tasks like case packing, carton loading, and palletizing."

He cited a case where workers were stooped over a fast-moving conveyor belt loading ice cream bars. The job was so taxing that workers had to rotate to another task every 15 minutes. Even then, they walked away with neck and back strain.

"It's not sustainable," Allen said. "So a lot of food companies are turning to a company like ours to help them solve some of their most ergonomic challenges. We focus on what we call smart robotics in the food and consumer packaged goods (CPG) marketplace."

In the case of the ice cream bars, three pick-and-place robots tied to the customers cartoning equipment was the solution.

In addition to issues with worker safety, Allen also noted labor shortages and an aging workforce as challenges. He said many millennials don't see manufacturing as a viable career. This is especially true in the fast-paced, often extreme temperature environments typical in food processing and packaging.

Vause said while sanitary practice is always top of mind, the primary pain point is labor. "If you're churning through your labor force, or you don't have well-trained people or access to a well-trained labor force, then you have sanitary concerns. As someone who has worked in medical devices, I can tell you going into a produce-packing house in California, there's a higher level of sanitary preparation and safety gear than there is in an operating room." Vause added,

"The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) has also raised the bar on the sanitary requirements for a lot of these packagers and processors. You have these two major megatrends, labor and FSMA. Companies are trying to solve for both of those simultaneously. It's an area where automation can really lend a hand."

Food sanitation standards for robots

Figure 2: Robots equipped with customized end-of-arm tooling extract newly formed and baked ice cream cones from their molds. Courtesy: Robotic Industries Association (RIA), JMP Automation, Inc.Robotic automation is getting a leg up with a new standard. Five years in the making, the 3-A Sanitary Standard for Robot-based Automation Systems, Number 103-00, became effective on October 13, 2016. The RBAS standard addresses robotic equipment used in primary food handling and packaging.

"3-A standards are some of the most stringent standards on the planet," said Bob Rochelle, document leader for the working group responsible for writing the standard. "These are the same standards used to meet state and federal regulations for food processing equipment in Grade A dairy plants."

Rochelle said the new standard is intended for manufacturers of robots and robotics-related ancillary equipment and the integrators of these systems. It establishes minimum sanitary hygienic requirements for design, materials, fabrication, and installation of the robot and ancillary robotic equipment, including the robot base, end-of-arm tooling (EOAT), tool changers, and robot dressing.

Developed in collaboration with the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), the RBAS standard brings together for the first time the robotics and the food processing sanitation worlds. Robotics suppliers and integrators, food processors, and several sanitary regulating bodies, including the USDA and FDA, worked together in its development.

"In the world of food science, this is definitely an inaugural moment," said Eric Schweitzer, director of standards and certification for 3-A Sanitary Standards, Inc., in McLean, Va. "There's no process equipment standard that informs manufacturers of robotic automation systems how to design for cleanability and inspectability. "The industry has been progressing more towards automation in recent decades. It seems to be progressing faster because labor is relatively expensive and robots have become less expensive. Robots don't have sick days and can operate far more efficiently without taking any breaks."

Traditionally, the convergence of robotics and food processing, especially in cases of direct food contact, has been problematic.

"You're dealing with joints and actuators, and things that are dynamically moving," Schweitzer said. "Not a very easy piece of machinery to design as sanitary. You have all of these cracks and crevices where bacteria and other microorganisms can harbor."

According to Schweitzer, a product contact surface is defined as all surfaces which are exposed to the product and from which splashed product, liquids or soil may drain, drop, diffuse or be drawn into the product or onto surfaces that come into contact with product contact surfaces of packaging materials. The 3-A standard addresses these scenarios and ensures that the construction of automation systems is cleanable, inspectable and meets the intent of the FDA's Grade A Pasteurized Milk Ordinance.

The RBAS standard is voluntary, but any robotics supplier or integrator looking to participate in the fast-paced food processing industry should definitely take a hard look. Schweitzer says 3-A doesn't endorse or approve any equipment. The not-for-profit writes standards and then licenses the use of its registered trademark symbol for equipment that has been inspected by a third-party evaluator and shows conformance to the 3-A Sanitary Standard.

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