The use of robots in food processing continues to grow with the development of specialist capabilities for processing, handling and packaging.
As the food sector is challenged by labour shortages and the high costs of materials and energy, robots are central to meeting consumer demand for quality, lower prices, convenience and sustainability.
Food processing and machinery falls into two categories:
- Primary food processing covers the equipment used to clean, sort and transport raw foodstuffs including fruit, vegetables, seeds, grains, meat and fish
- Secondary food processing involves various ways of preparing, sorting and mixing foods, and by cooking, chilling or freezing to make a huge array of consumable processed food products
Meat processing robotics
The first stage of meat processing involves carcass break up, boning, trimming and fat removal. Traditional butchery is a highly skilled manual operation, but modern robots are now available which can:
- strip a carcass automatically at high speed.
- deboning large animals such as cattle as well as smaller, lighter boned poultry
- locate joints before incisions are made using X-ray or camera vision systems
- cut, pull or use jets to take meat off the bone
Specialist robotic meat processing equipment includes aitch-bone cutters, belly and breast openers and neck clippers, as well as robotic cutters to separate parts such as lamb rib cages and chicken breasts. Automated systems can also be used to prepare processed meat foodstuffs such as sausages and patés. Robotic systems equipped with X-ray or machine vision inspection equipment can also ensure that contaminants or pieces of bone are detected and removed.
The growing handling and sensing capabilities of robots mean that they now have a role in cooking finished dishes. Integrated sensors, cameras and AI technology have been developed which emulate the movements, control and know-how of human chefs.
Examples include ceiling mounted systems which feature:
- robotic arms which move around a track
- easy-to-use interfaces such as touch screens
- ingredients delivered to appropriate part of the kitchen and placed in the right cooking vessels or appliances
- cooking times and temperatures governed by software for different types of food and different dishes
- food stored at controlled temperatures in fridges accessible by the robot, and picked up with agile robotic grippers
New developments include robots which can sample food during the cooking process, and identify the five basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savoury. Kitchen robots are also being to prepare various types of pizza by home delivery companies and integrated with home delivery robots, providing a fully integrated, fully automatic food service.
The use of robotics in the dairy industry began with automated milking systems in the 1990s. Modern systems typically feature:
- a robotic arm which positions itself under the cow’s udder
- lasers which guide the gripper to the teats to clean them and apply milking cups
- tubing for the milk to flow into the collection vessel
- pressure-washing of the arm which swings back into place for the next cow
Thanks to automated milking systems, cows choose when to be milked, and farmers are free to use their time for all the other activities they need to look after.
Dairy robotics and automation extends into many other herd management including:
- diet and ration preparation
- manure handling
- behaviour monitoring
- animal movement
- animal health
- genomic testing
- methane reduction
Robots are also used in dairy production for stirring curds for cheese, slicing cheese, and packaging, as well as for egg collection and sorting.
Precision is the key to efficient agriculture, and robots are increasingly driving the sector towards greatly improved performance.
Throughout farming, systems based on autonomous robots, tractors and drones are being used to:
- monitor PH or nutrient levels in soil
- plant and sort seedlings
- plough, prepare and plant large fields with fully automated tractors
- spray pesticides only on the plants that need them
- remove weeds
- thin and prune crops
- harvest and pick an increasing number of fruit and vegetable crops
- manage herds and flocks with drones, especially in difficult terrain
- manage irrigation with targeted water systems
- manage greenhouse environments
- monitor crops via autonomous robots at ground level and via airborne drones
- collect data
In the healthcare sector, robots are now helping in multiple ways, from monitoring patients to diagnosis and advanced surgery. As in other sectors, service delivery is now frequently hampered by a shortage of staff, and robots are stepping into roles which could previously only be filled by people.
The types of activity medical robots can perform include:
- using UV technology to identify areas needing sanitation and disinfection without risk to staff health
- exoskeletons to help physically impaired patients
- robotic companions to perform some of the functions of human companions
- AI algorithms to help interpret data and for diagnosis
- procedures such as endoscopies and stone removal with microbots
- robot surgery allowing doctors to operate with maximum precision
- streamline workflows
Robotics in packaging
With advances in handling, AI and flexibility, food packaging robots have now enabled the complete automation of the food packaging process.
Packaging falls into three categories of activity, all of which can be handled by automated systems. For the food industry,
- primary packaging concerns the wrapping of individual food items such as chocolate bars in foil, or portions of meat in a vacuum pack
- secondary packaging groups multiple individual items together, such as confectionery or meat products being placed into a carton to facilitate transport and handling
- tertiary packaging places groups of products together on a pallet and frequently involves wrapping the grouped goods for stability and security
Throughout the food packaging process, robots undertake picking, placing, wrapping, and cartooning as well as transporting individual or grouped products throughout. Robotic handling is guided by programmes with vision systems adding further control, including quality control.
Food delivery robots
Robots are now in use to deliver hot, prepared food automatically to customers. While at an early stage, small, slow speed autonomous robots in urban centres are being used to:
- pick up orders from takeaways and restaurants
- to find their way to customers’ homes using a combination of AI programmes and vision systems
- to provide secure delivery by using an app on customers’ phones to unlock to unlock the robot’s containers
Within the restaurant sector, the use of robots is also being explored
- to welcome guests
- to take orders
- to deliver food from kitchen to table
What are the advantages of robotics in food processing?
The advantages of robots for any sector, is that they perform repetitive tasks with great accuracy and without rest periods. Within food processing, increasing capabilities are seeing robots in use for multiple tasks previously dependent entirely or partially on human staff.
For the food sector, robots and automation offer similar advantages to the ones they provide for other types of businesses:
- fewer human staff on payroll
- no recruitment and management issues
- no rest periods or time off
- no staff health and safety concerns
- accurate performance of tasks
- repetitive working at a reliable and consistent level
Specific advantages within food processing include:
- no safety issues for dangerous tasks such as cutting and trimming carcasses
- no risk of infection from staff in food handling
- integrated UV disinfection n robotic kitchens
- reduced waste through accurate ingredient, portion and stock control
- better environmental management in agriculture through efficient use of pesticides, feeds and irrigation
- accurate data on all consumables, outputs and operations