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By taking advantage of new robotic gripping technologies, the food industry can meet growing demand.

With the current global population estimated at 7.8 billion, the United Nations forecasts growth of up to 10.9 billion by the end of this century. Faced with this development, the need for food manufacturers to adopt automation has become urgent.

Demography, however, is only one of the driving forces behind the adoption of automation in the food industry. Worker safety, strict regulations to apply, the popularity of processed foods and the need to improve productivity while reducing production costs are all contributing factors to the increased adoption of automation.

The automotive sector is today enjoying the full benefits of industrial automation. In the food industry, on the other hand, products often require a certain degree of precaution in touch and arrive regularly in irregular shapes or orientations, making the automation of their handling complex. Traditional robotic systems have successfully served the food industry for many years in palletizing applications (and some packaging), but it is only in recent years that it has become possible for robots to directly handle food products. delicate.

The arrival of a new improved gripping technology, accompanied by vision systems, has changed everything. Vacuum grippers allow robots to successfully perform packaging tasks with delicacy that exceeds the capabilities of traditional grippers, and flexible grippers allow direct handling of food so that the product is not damaged during the automation process.

Therefore, secondary food processing applications are fully compatible with the capabilities of automation systems that even mimic human touch. From the picking and placing of tender fruit to the handling of chocolates and bakery products, the food industry is adopting new gripping technologies at a remarkable pace.

A recent ING report found that the number of food manufacturers adopting automation increased by 50% between 2014 and 2019. The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies also predicted that the global food packaging market will experience an average annual growth rate of 4 to 5% to reach $ 400 billion by 2025. What are the advantages of automation in the agrifood sector?

Employee safety

At a time when players in the agrifood sector are facing new challenges related to COVID-19, in particular new regulations in terms of hygiene and physical distance, the time is right to consider completing the workforce. human work through automation. In addition, the arrival of collaborative robots offers manufacturers the means to solve the turnover problem. Employees can be reassigned to more interesting tasks while robots take on tasks that are considered boring and messy (from lifting heavy loads to repetitive pickup and placement operations). Thanks to robots, employees avoid repetitive tasks, physical distance standards are respected and security is reinforced.

Compliance with strict food safety regulations

Driven by consumers and the industry itself, regulators around the world impose strict requirements on all food processing operations. Even with the best of intentions, collaborators can transport and spread contaminants that end up in the end product. Given regulatory requirements, it is therefore essential that manufacturers choose certified equipment.

Certified flexible pliers are particularly recommended for the treatment of delicate objects. They enhance food security and are capable of handling a wide range of fragile and irregularly shaped foods, such as lettuce, herbs and strawberries. The ideal is to choose a clamp that does not require an external air supply. It eliminates dust and noise problems, while reducing both complexity and cost.

Improved productivity and quality

Certified grippers allow manufacturers to maintain high quality standards and avoid costly product recalls, while helping to improve productivity.

Businesses need to ensure that robotic grippers can handle payloads that meet, and even exceed application requirements in most food processing scenarios. Grippers should be easy to change, to reduce downtime, and ideally with a suitable size for the dishwasher to reduce cleaning time.

In addition, faced with the shortage of qualified employees, it is important to choose grippers compatible with existing machines and with a wide range of robots. This gives the end user, whatever their skills, maximum flexibility in a wide variety of applications.

Vacuum grippers or flexible grippers?

If vacuum grippers can easily handle cans and food packaging, they come up against uneven surfaces and prefer to work with smooth surfaces. On the other hand, flexible grippers are more suitable for delicate food handling tasks.

Generally speaking, it is better to choose flexible tongs for delicate items such as food and vacuum tongs for more robust items and general palletizing tasks. Regardless of the gripper, it is necessary to ensure that the safety rules are observed.

The demand for food products is expected to increase considerably over the next few decades. But with the right automation and gripping solutions, food processing plants can meet this demand while satisfying the thirst for productivity and cost reduction of those involved in food processing.

By Thierry Delmas Managing Director Southern Europe, Africa & Middle East at OnRobot.

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