Food manufacturers are increasing their use of robotics and automation in everything from butchering and sorting to mixing ingredients and cooking.
Nearly a third of food processing and more than 90% of packaging operations are now performed using robotics, according to a recent survey by the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies, and automation in the sector is expected to grow sharply as advancement in machine vision and gripper technology enables robotics to make more precise movements and handle more delicate items than they had in the past. Experts say these advancements have the potential to usher in new levels of efficiency and productivity along with greater quality control and better labor management.
Refining automation, from chicken to Peeps
Major food companies are collaborating with robotics partners to deploy new technologies. Tyson Foods, which has invested more than $215 million in the last five years in robotics and automation initiatives, opened a new innovation facility near its headquarters in Springdale, Arkansas, in August 2019 to develop new robotics for its food production plants. The Tyson Manufacturing Automation Center features a machine vision technology lab, a food production lab, training classrooms and a space to foster collaboration between Tyson’s technology team and its suppliers.
“We wanted to inspire our company with what could be and to start thinking about automation and robotics in a way that drives innovation.”
Director of manufacturing technology, Tyson
“If we bring the right skill sets together, it allows us to quickly create those solutions that will meet the needs we have on our facilities,” Doug Foreman, director of manufacturing technology for Tyson told Supply Chain Dive. “We wanted to inspire our company with what could be and to start thinking about automation and robotics in a way that drives innovation.”
Tyson uses automated and robotic technologies to support everything from the evisceration of poultry to weighing, packaging and palletizing. The goal now is to refine automation and robotics to move from “purely mechanical operations to dealing with pieces in a more precise manner,” Foreman said.
New vision technologies, sensors, AI and grippers are continually enabling robotics to be more flexible and adaptable in food manufacturing and allow them to take on more roles in production in recent years. “We’ve always had a great deal of automation in our plants, it just didn’t adapt well to each individual part. We’re now able to start thinking about that,” Foreman said.
High-resolution vision sensors now enable robotics to better identify part sizes, geometries and orientations in new ways. Machines that were once limited to well-defined repetitive processes can now better respond to outliers, something that has enabled Tyson to think about implementing solutions that weren’t possible a few years ago, Foreman said.
New gripping technologies are also enabling robotic arms to be more delicate and precise. Vacuum grippers use pneumatics and flexible suction cups to pick up things like pancakes with minimal touch, while soft grippers can carefully grab produce, pastries and other delicate food items without leaving a mark. including everything from fresh items and produce to frozen goods,” Jeff Burnstein, president for the Association for Advancing Automation, told Supply Chain Dive.
“All these new grabbers enable them to handle all sorts of food products that they couldn’t in the past."
President, Association of Advancing Automation
Just Born Quality Confections, which makes the soft, delicate and odd-shaped Peeps, was only recently able to automate its delicate and sticky products by using a Soft Robotics pneumatic gripper. Previously, the candies could only be handled by human hands, said Randall Copeland, senior VP of operations and supply chain at Just Born Quality Confections, in a video. Automation now enables the company to achieve greater efficiency and to more easily change production lines to expand seasonal products. “Because of this flexibility, we can do a lot more things that we originally bargained on,” Copeland said.
Improving safety and addressing labor issues
Manufacturers are also making robotic arms and machinery to better withstand the stringent cleaning requirements that they must undergo to handle food, Foreman said. Protocols set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require any surface that comes in direct contact with the food to be completely sanitized. Better seals, newer materials and designs enable robotics to withstand the cold, heat, water and corrosive cleaning chemicals. Many robots are now being designed with epoxy paints, food-grade grease for mechanical components, more enclosures and improved sealing to support an IP67 waterproofing rating.
Robots are also growing as a tangible means to increase food safety and reduce the risk of contamination, because they can’t get sick or carry human pathogens, Burnstein said. A report by PMMI noted robots can offer superior quality control, assuming they can be cleaned.
Automation is also addressing labor issues by filling in for many of the “dull and difficult” jobs, Foreman said. Reducing the heavy lifting, highly repetitive and risky tasks also reduce injuries on the job and improve workplace safety. Tyson's facility also features a part dedicated to training new team members on how to use automated or robotic systems.
“We can test equipment, prioritize a plan and enable those team members to learn by training on equipment and learn how to operate and maintain it before it’s coming down the line,” Foreman said.
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