The food industry consists of several complex steps that robots are now helping to optimize. From the agricultural stages to restaurants, home cooking, and grocery stores, food robots have unique programming to help with food cultivation and production tasks. With robots, each step becomes ready to meet supply and demand through higher productivity and greater safety.
The food industry begins with agriculture. Meat, crops, and dairy products all come from agriculture. With the responsibility of providing these food products, agricultural entities should turn to robots to properly tackle each step.
Autonomous robots can travel through the fields of crops and get rid of weeds or monitor crop health. Other autonomous robots can collect eggs or milk and feed the animals. These robots take care of the repetitive tasks, freeing up farmworkers to complete tasks requiring even more dexterity or intuition.
Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, then provide an overhead analysis of crops. With their high-definition cameras and thermal imaging, drones can report back about which crops are dry and need water or fertilizer. UAVs are ideal for monitoring large plots of land that would take workers hours.
Manufacturing is the first step of robotics in food processing. This processing involves several steps that typically happen in a manufacturing facility, like packaging and safety monitoring. First, robots can clean and sort the different types of food. Robotic arms can easily organize fruits and vegetables, for instance, into separate containers.
Robots can also prepare certain foods ahead of the packaging phase. Since cutting fruits and vegetables requires various cutting tools, robots can work more efficiently by pairing knives to the type of cut required, or switch efficiently between cutting implements. They can then autonomously cut food for grocery stores or even prepare meals.
It’s more difficult to have robots work in the butchery side of manufacturing. Preparing meat can, at times, require human techniques and strength. However, automated robots can still debone meat or fish.
After robots manufacture the food, robotics in food processing can then combine the ingredients of a prepackaged meal, like frozen dinners. Fast and efficient robotic packaging systems help workers meet supply and demand levels.
These robots can also sort the food onto pallets for storage and shipment at a later time. Autonomous robots will soon be an even more common sight, navigating through the warehouse and retrieving or storing inventory with ease.
However, on top of efficiency, the packaging process of the food industry has a unique opportunity to reduce waste through the use of robots.
In 2014, packaging materials made up 63% of total waste in the United States. Manufacturers can switch to more sustainable packaging materials, like biodegradable products. Then, when they have robots use these materials, they’ll be mass-producing food in a more sustainable way.
First, in warehouses and manufacturing facilities, robots can handle dangerous tasks that put employees at risk. For instance, autonomous robots can retrieve items from high-up places.
In terms of health, food robots handle tasks that could otherwise give employees an illness. Foodborne diseases are common, both severe and mild. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) finds that 48 million Americans get sick with foodborne illnesses every year.
Robots work with meats, fish, and other products that can give people these illnesses, thereby cutting down on lost time. It’s also less likely for a robot to mishandle or mis-package a food product and cause an outbreak that way.
After the pandemic closed restaurants, food delivery became a new norm. Accordingly, the biggest food delivery services brought in $5.5 billion from April to September 2020 alone. This number is double what they earned in the same period in 2019.
The food delivery industry is still growing, though. Autonomous vehicles are already in use across the country. Some operate on a town-wide scale, while others work well on campuses. Kiwi, for instance, autonomously delivers food across college campuses in California. The company hopes to exceed 500 deliveries in one day, setting a world record. Drones are also an option for robotic food delivery. They could carry food from restaurants to customers in a set location. Though companies are still working on the logistics, this adoption would mean big things for food delivery.
There are also companies like Keenon Robot that manufacture robots for delivering goods indoors. For example, T6 and T1 models feature shelves on which food can be placed. The robots then navigate autonomously, in public places like restaurants and hotels, to bring food to the customers.
Robots in the food industry also work well for cooking. Restaurants are already using robots for preparing the ingredients and cooking them. Creator, located in San Francisco, is a burger joint where robots grind the beef, grill the patties, and dispense the condiments, thus assembling the entire burger.
These robots could soon become a trend for home cooking, too. Moley Robotics has already released a robot that can help cook recipes for customers at home. In the future, the company hopes to offer robots with 5,000 meals and skills built-in.
Both examples demonstrate how robots will become popular for restaurant and personal use with the right integration.
Grocery shopping is where customers get the ingredients they need for recipes. Here, robots are again useful, providing customer assistance and inventory management.
Behind the scenes, robots can sort and process incoming shipments, just as they would in a manufacturing plant. They can sort boxes and unpack the contents. This organization helps with properly managing inventory and knowing what to order for the store.
On the customer-facing side, some robots can provide customer assistance or simply greet them upon entry. Pepper the robot is a well-known example. This robot is already in use in some stores, where it informs customers about COVID-19 safety precautions in addition to giving them a warm hello.
These seven sectors of the food industry show how robots have the power to change everything. Through efficiency, safety, and customer satisfaction, robotics are the necessary factor to bring the industry to the next level. From here, robots will become more and more integral to each step.