Every link in the food supply process is being affected by robotics. These are five ways robotics is changing the industry.
The food industry is evolving. The global population is growing at an extraordinary rate. Food suppliers must work harder. Consumers want more sustainable, high-quality food at their fingertips.
Automation and robotics are key components of the solution. The adoption of robotics in the food manufacturing industry has been slower than in other industries. Robotics has been incorporated into nearly every link of the food supply chain over the past few years, from the field to the kitchen.
Crop-based agriculture is where we start our food journey.
The precision agriculture industry will be worth $7.87 trillion by 2022. Robotics plays a large part in this. The combined value of agricultural drones is expected to reach $3.9 trillion by the end of this year.
Robotic applications can be used to plant, identify and sort seedlings. Robotic tractors, harvesting robots, and weeding robots are all available. In order to monitor and analyze crops, drones and autonomous ground vehicles can be used. A Harvard research project aims to address a critical problem in global agriculture: the decline of the bee population. Researchers propose using a small number of drones to pollinate crops.
Robotics is being used in non-plant agriculture. It is currently being applied to beef, poultry, and dairy farming. Robotics is used for autonomous feeding, milking, egg collection, sorting, cleaning, and other tasks.
The Robot Report has compiled a list of 160 agencies and businesses that are using robots to develop agricultural applications.
Robotics in Food Manufacture
The key to meeting rising food demand is autonomous food manufacturing. The global food automation industry will see its value increase by 50% in five years and reach $2.5 billion by 2022. Due to the growing popularity of ready-to-eat food in Asia-Pacific, the market is huge.
Food manufacturing can be divided into two distinct stages.
- Primary Processing Raw food products are processed, cleaned, sorted, and transported to be blended. Robotic applications include butchery and vegetable sorting and are increasingly common as part of commercial restaurant equipment.
- Secondary Processing — In order to create new foods, ingredients are mixed by baking, cooking, and chilling. Robotic applications include product sorting and defect removal, as well as mixing.
Because food is more standardized, robotics applications are better suited for secondary processing. We see more primary processing robots.
Robotics in Food Packaging
For a while, food packaging robots have been integrated into various parts of the food supply chain. The latest advancement is that all packaging processes can now be automated.
There are three types of food packaging:
- Primary packaging — Each food is packaged. A pick-and-place robot, for example, places sweets in plastic tubs.
- Secondary packaging — Packages are grouped together. Another pick-and-place robot, for example, stacks the plastic tubs into larger boxes.
- Tertiary packaging Secondary packages are grouped together for shipping. A palletizing robot, for example, places many boxes on a pallet.
Robotic interference is likely to remain a major application in food packaging automation.
Robotics in Food Delivery
Recent media attention has focused on robotic food delivery. Dominos Pizza announced earlier this year that it would be using autonomous ground vehicles to deliver pizzas. This follows their first successful but very loud drone delivery at the end of last year.
Although autonomous food delivery might seem like the latest trend, it is actually addressing a growing market trend. There has been a significant increase in demand for ready-to-eat, restaurant-quality, home-delivered food over the past few years. While autonomous delivery is not yet a common practice, our appetite for take-out is changing the face of the food industry.
Robotics in Cookery
Cooking is the final step in the food supply chain. In the article Modern cooking: Are robot chefs really here? We discussed cookery robotics in 2015. We also introduced the Moley robotic chef and other robot chefs in this article. Moley’s website currently classifies the project as “in progress,” but they claim that the robot will be available for sale by the end of this year.
A similar invention is the Spyce robotic cooking kitchen at MIT. It mixes pre-chopped ingredients and cooks them in heated rotating drums. This works like a cement mixer. Spyce cooked food for university students in April 2016, but it is not yet a commercial product.
Cooking meals on-demand does not mean that cookery automation is necessarily a way to automate cooking. For example, the APRIL robot aims to bring restaurant-quality food to mass-produced food. Large batch sizes and traditional mass-production methods can reduce the quality of food. The inventors claim that KUKA robots can cook smaller batches of food, which improves the quality.
The development of delivery and cookery robots is still in its infancy compared to other stages in the food supply chain. It is evident that robotics is changing how the food industry works.