Looking at the Latest Industrial Automation Trends in Food Processing

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Automation technologies have become more important than ever in food processing. In Q2 2022, A3 figures show that North American robot sales reached a record high for the third quarter in a row. Within those sales, orders in the food and consumer goods industry saw a 13% rise in orders year over year, a number that may continue growing.

In this Automate Live spotlight on food processing, Harley Green, director of business development, Soft Robotics joined Jimmy Carroll, A3 contributing editor to discuss the latest automation trends in food processing.

Jimmy Carroll: Hi, Everyone. My name is Jimmy Carroll. I'm an A3 contributing editor and VP of operations at Tech B2B Marketing. I'm here today with Harley Green, director of business development at Soft Robotics, and we're here to discuss automation and food processing. Thanks very much for taking the time to meet with me, Harley.

Harley Green: Thank you, Jimmy.

Jimmy: Of course. So, across several different industries, adoption of automation technologies like robots and machine vision and AI continues to grow. Among these areas is the food industry, which is seeing significant growth in terms of robot sales. A3 figures show that that robot sales in food and consumer goods grew 13% year-over-year in Q2, while the International Federation of Robotics, the IFR, shows that the food and beverage industry installed a record number of robots in 2021 — 25% more than were installed in 2020. Obviously, events such as COVID and the workforce shortage play into this, but it seems like the food industry was probably primed for growth in terms of automation regardless. My question to you is, do you agree? And if so, can you talk a bit about the different ways you've seen food processing companies deploy automation?

Harley: Yeah, 100%. The focus recently has been around, “Oh, my God, we can't find labor” or “we can't retain labor. How do we reduce our reliance on labor?” But to your point, I think before that we had already seen some companies in the food industry starting to automate. The baked goods space in particular has been using robotics for years. A lot of robots are feeding flow wrappers — such as putting cereal bars and all sorts of products onto a conveyor to feed the system. Outside of that, if you look at some of the proteins, there's some pretty cool solutions out there in the primal cutting and sub primal cutting space where you might attach, let's just say, a dangerous tool — a blade on the end of a robot — that will make cuts on, say, a piece of beef or pork. And we've seen other areas, whether it be primary packaging or secondary packaging, or palletizing, where either a lot of people are required to do mundane tasks or companies are looking to reduce some of the ergonomic strain issues that might come along with these jobs. You know, lifting heavy boxes, moving them over their heads, and things like that. So, we've definitely seen a lot of growth in that space.

Some companies choose to focus downstream on palletizing first and then move further upstream. But one of the key goals that most food manufacturers have is that they're looking for something capable of replacing the value that people bring to an operation. Here, you start getting into, okay, now I really need human hand-like dexterity or the meaningful decision making that people do while in a chaotic environment, for instance.

Jimmy: What are some of the primary challenges that food processing companies run into when it comes to deploying automation, and how are they addressing or how can they address these issues?

Harley: First and foremost, what we hear from most customers is floor space, right? It's at a premium. A lot of food manufacturing facilities have been around for a long time and weren’t designed or built with automation in mind. For the most part, you can sort of put people shoulder to shoulder in a facility. This was a problem during the pandemic, but otherwise people don’t take up too much space. But robots and automation in general need a little bit more structure. And floor space comes at a premium. So, I would say the number one challenge that most food processing companies run into when they start looking to automate is they don't have the floor space needed. Now, that also leads to a great opportunity for certain manufacturers of technology and equipment to then come up with solutions in the allotted space.

Another problem is all the different food products. Unless they're stamped out, sort of ready to eat or convenience food–type products, there is a lot of variability to them. No two apples are the same. No two avocados are exactly the same. So, there's this natural variability that has to be accounted for that you don't typically find with automation. Everything in automation is generally very structured. Finding a way to bridge the gap between the variability that you see in food and what robots have currently been able to do is a factor.

And then there’s always food safety. That is the number one concern outside of floor space with food manufacturers trying to automate. They want to make sure that they are not introducing any additional foreign material into their products or their packaging. That would obviously be a big problem. They want to make sure that all the people providing solutions into this space are able to check the boxes indicating that these are hygienic systems — parts can be easily cleaned, components are food grade, and things of that nature. It all revolves around food safety.

Jimmy: One of the things that we see is that as processes evolve, machine vision vendors need to evolve their offerings to meet evolving needs. That means that a lot of different types of technologies are used in food processing today. What are some of the trends in food processing that have pushed the vendor community to innovate further? I'm thinking of things like IP69K protection, 3D developments, multispectral, hyperspectral, anything like that.

Harley: A lot of what you just touched on goes back to my previous comment. In general, the technology has to be food safe and IP69K protection is a critical piece in making sure that equipment manufacturers look at that from the ground up and have that be a requirement in their solution.

The food space has historically been very slow to adopt automation. Therefore, a lot of the component manufacturers haven't necessarily come up with IP69K-rated, food grade or hygienic solutions, so, there's a little bit of a gap there. I do think that we're seeing some trends move toward that as component manufacturers start to see some other markets slowing down. But food, as you mentioned, is growing at an extreme pace for automation. The end users, the food manufacturers, need to be able to check the box that says this is a hygienic, indoor IP69K-rated solution. Now I can move on to the next step, which is usually, “How can I now handle my production?”

People are really good at looking down at a pile of chicken drumsticks coming down a production line and being able to pick them out one by one and put them into a tray. Well, robots are not so great at that. But we’re seeing new developments in 3D technology and different imagers being able to see and handle different scenarios. We’ve gone from having to have everything perfectly presented to a robot — the same product, the same shape, the same size and weight every single time — to robots that are able to handle piles of product moving down a conveyor just like people would.

One thing that I always look at is the cost for a company to have a food recall. Right? And one thing that we always try to do is make sure that anything that goes into this food space is not going to cause any issues. It's not going to be a cause for concern for the food manufacturer and is ultimately going to make them have higher throughput and output at the end of the day.

Jimmy: When it comes to deploying these different technologies, food processing companies have options. They can use an internal integrator or have a third-party integrator come in and design, specify, and integrate a system. But one trend that I've observed over recent years, and this applies to soft robotics, of course, is the increase in the availability of machine vision or robotic systems that target specific needs. Your company, Soft Robotics, is an example of a company that offers such a system. Why do you think these so-called turnkey systems have become more popular in food processing as of late?

Harley: It all goes back to labor, right? And trying to close the gap between the labor needs of each of these manufacturers and the value that humans bring to those environments. Speed to deployment, for instance. How can end users take advantage of this technology today rather than tomorrow to satisfy some of their needs? And we’ve seen a lot of advancements in machine vision and AI solving some very challenging issues, like I have so much variability in my product. How can I take one solution and one approach to solving this? And the reality is, you know, maybe there isn't just one approach. Maybe you really need some additional horsepower to be able to handle all that flexibility.

The food space in general has historically relied on humancentric applications. You've really got to capture the value of what people bring to these environments and apply that to robots. People are really good at making adjustments on the fly. If you're a food manufacturer and you're running a flex line, meaning that you're going to have different products running on the same line at different days or different weeks, you need assurance that the system is going to be able to switch over quickly and easily with minimal, if any, disruption to manufacturing.

As a nation, we continue to demand more food. Food consumption has gone up, and manufacturers don't want to have any negative impact on the supply chain. So, the top drivers of these turnkey systems are speed of deployment, trying to solve the labor gap and trying to keep up with consumer demand.

Jimmy: Last question for you, Harley. What is one thing that any food processing company looking to implement automation or say, upgrade an existing system, should really do before starting that process?

Harley: We work directly with end users. And I think the number one value that they can bring early on to this process is truly understanding their entire process and their problems. And I would say that most automation projects are rarely just one dimensional. I like to say, look at the upstream processes, look at the downstream processes, and really know the problems so that we can help you right-size your implementation of automation.

It’s best for end users to be honest about their processes and what they want to achieve, what their goals are, so when we all come together at the end of this, everyone's going to be better aligned with the end solution, and it's going to meet the expectations of the customer. Do the upfront homework.

Some food manufacturers haven't even thought about any of this because the business has just been so chaotic. But really understand your process, understand your goals, and make sure that you bring that sort of honest insight into the project. And think about the future as well. You know, don't just think about, “How do I keep up with my production today?” Think about whether you plan on increasing production for the future. You don't want to necessarily box yourself in with the solution.

Jimmy: Harley, thank you for taking the time today to speak with me. I appreciate it. If anyone has any questions or comments for A3 on this topic, I'd encourage you to visit www.automate.org. Otherwise, thanks for checking this out.

Harley: Thanks, Jimmy.

Note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.