The food and agriculture industries continue to embrace the latest technologies as they look to promote efficiency and cost-effectiveness. The Wall Street Journal reported that food and agricultural venture-capital investments grew an unprecedented 54% to $486 million last year, according to Dow Jones VentureSource. Many of these investments have gone toward technologies dedicated to precision agriculture, indoor farming, food safety, and alternative foods.
But there's another aspect of up-and-coming technology for the food and agriculture industries that stands out: Robots.
These robots aren't necessarily R2D2 or humanoid C3PO-type droids, as many might imagine them to be. Robots in the food industry include a wide range of technologies, mobile or immobile, interactive or not, programmed for single- or multi-tasking, and more. In farms and factories, robots manage many tasks once done by humans or other machines.
On farms, robots might assist farmers with planting, picking, or sorting. In food factories, robots may prepare or package foods or transport them from one line or room to another. Robots can perform the least desirable jobs without complaints, breaks, health insurance, or workers compensation, which introduces an array of benefits for farmers and food companies. However, they come with their own unique drawbacks as well.
Robots as the new farmhands in agriculture
Some farmers have been using drones to monitor and handle crops in a variety of ways, but robots are making headway in creating agricultural benefits as well. Commodities farmers have long used specialized machinery to take care of many different planting and harvesting tasks. Many produce farmers, however, still employ people to handpick and care for their crops, which are often more delicate than various commodities, such as corn and soy.
However, many of these produce pickers have been immigrants, who are now more difficult to find for employment due to better job opportunities in Mexico and tighter border restrictions in the U.S. Farmers are finding their workforces dwindle as a result, and the labor shortage is preventing them from making the most of their yields.
Robots, like Agrobot, however, can have a more gentle touch than common agricultural machinery while also not requiring a spot on the payroll once the initial investment is made. Farm robots are powered by carefully designed machinery, particularly in the arms and picking mechanisms, along with advanced computer programming. Robots can perform many of the functions of humans, using the same delicate hands and discerning observations needed for these produce crops.
Lettuce (LettuceBot 2), strawberries (Agrobot's SW6010), peppers (Sweet-Pepper Harvest Robot), and vineyards (Wall-Ye) are examples of crops that are already being tended to by robots. Even dairy farms are getting in on the action.
And perhaps most importantly, robots can be more efficient and cost-effective than human workers. Cost-effectiveness is an attractive feature for many farmers, particularly California farmers who are looking to cut costs while suffering from the current drought.
Robots on the manufacturing line
According to management consulting firm Boston Consulting Group, today’s robots, food-related or otherwise, only automate about 10% of the tasks that machines can perform, though that number is expected to increase to about 25% of automatable tasks in the next decade. One issue is that manufacturers still haven’t figured out a way to automate many of the tasks needed on the food assembly line. Machinery and even robots have already made some factory jobs obsolete, such as some assembly line workers who have found their routine jobs sorting through products for defects overtaken by a machine. However, robots won't just yet be fully integrated into food manufacturing.
Robots can also contribute to increased safety: Employees can avoid having to work with dangerous equipment, and food contamination is removed from human employees and lessened or eliminated by robots. Food safety is a growing concern among consumers as food recalls have made recent headlines, such as Blue Bell Creameries and Kraft Foods Group.
At the moment, robots in food manufacturing are most often used for end-of-line tasks, such as bagging and palletizing. However, more advanced robotics is proving to be useful in pick-and-place operations for individual food products and may even be able to handle intricate jobs like decorating cakes. Just as in agriculture, wherein machines were not able to perform the delicate and discerning tasks that humans could, advanced technology is enabling robots to handle the work more quickly, efficiently, and cost effectively.
How robots can cause headaches
While one of the most appealing aspects of robots is the ability to make up for a dwindling or inefficient workforce, the same benefit can also be a hindrance to employees in that they could stand to lose their jobs if replaced by machinery that is more efficient and/or cost-effective. Just earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that more than one million Americans hold jobs related to U.S. agricultural exports, and many more work in the food manufacturing industry as well.
However, one positive caveat to this assumption is that some experts think that robots will not replace workers but rather make them more efficient. Other experts believe that robots could even create more jobs than they take away, such as creating a need for IT and maintenance associated with using robots.
Maintenance and repairs are another drawback to using robots. Repairs, particularly for more advanced machinery, can be costly, and depending on the frequency and severity of the repairs needed, having a workforce may end up being a more cost-effective solution anyway. Farmers and food companies could lose valuable time and money on their investments in this technology.
Not all farms or companies will have the capital necessary to invest in robotics, which could lend an unfair advantage to larger farms and companies who can readily afford the latest technology. Smaller companies wouldn’t be able to level the playing field until robots become more affordable.
The world has a growing necessity to produce more food for more mouths to feed, and farmers and food companies have a need to cut costs to remain in business and protect their bottom line. As these realities take shape, robots may become a more accepted and familiar part of food industry operations in the near future.