The safety of the food we eat is more important now than ever before. In the post COVID era, people are more alert to how their food is produced and food safety is of utmost importance to manufacturers. The most obvious solution to the problem, of course, is automating the process of food manufacturing through the use of robotics.
Why Automate Food?
At the present time, the largest driver of food automation is the coronavirus pandemic which is forcing food manufacturers to take a hard look at their process and the prevention of contamination.
If nothing else, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the role of food contamination painfully obvious in the process of spreading diseases. This is because food has always been prepared by humans which makes it susceptible to carrying more than just flavour. Automating the process is the only way to remove this susceptibility and make the food in a completely sterile environment.
Traditionally, automation in the food industry has always been slow and rather haphazard. This is due to the variability of the food itself. When it comes to food processes, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Therefore, a new robot is designed for every food and beverage. Combine this with the enormous number of packaged and fast-foods and the problem becomes apparent.
Recent advancements within the field of robotics, however, have now enabled us to automate the food production cycle in a very lego-like manner. In other words, we can now automate small parts of the process and mix-match existing robots to create an assembly line system for many common food items.
Agriculture is the very beginning of the food chain. A slip-up at this stage can be catastrophic in the least. Therefore, it is vital that all the raw ingredients that come out of a farm are clean and fresh. The inspection of the harvested food is a tedious process that requires monotonous labour and is prone to mistakes.
In order to tackle this, the German company Bühler is developing a sorting system that uses cutting edge laser technology coupled with cloud computing in order to sort the infected grains from the save ones with a speed and accuracy which was previously unheard of. Currently, the company is focusing only on detecting grains inflected with a cancer-causing chemical called aflatoxin. Grains infected with this chemical are a major health threat in many countries across the world. Although the technology is currently limited to one chemical, it can certainly expand to scan for other infections in crops and help eliminate crop-related diseases.
There are many horror stories regarding the misconduct of food in the kitchens of major food chains. This leads to widespread mistrust in the public regarding the safety of the food served at these restaurants. In order to counteract this, food chains are now implementing automated food production systems that can essentially deliver untouched food to the table.
The California-based company Picnic has recently created a pizza-making robot that can output 300 pizzas an hour. It makes pizzas of all shapes and sizes and is currently being used at the T-mobile Park in Seattle and the Las Vegas Convention Centre. Moreover, the San Francisco-based company Momentum Machines has created a similar assembly line system for making burgers.
In terms of beverages, another California-based company called Blendid is using an all-new robotic arm mechanism in order to make smoothies on demand. These companies together are bringing about a robotic revolution within the food industry which will help us create better, safer and healthier food and beverages in the future.
The concern for contamination is not limited to freshly cooked food. Packaged food is just as much at risk, if not more. While food packaging has been automated for years, food manufacturing still requires human contact. This is because, when handling raw food, even robotic processes can pose contamination threats.
Fanuc, a Japanese group of companies, has come with an innovative solution to the problem. In early 2020, they created their DR-i3B/8L robot which is capable of handling raw food with minimal risk of contamination. This robot is designed with food handling in mind. Therefore, it has no painted surface (since chipped paint can fall in the food), and instead, the surface is treated with electroless nickel plating. The robot also has angular surfaces and viewing windows to prevent any oil leaks from escaping into the food.
With this technology, the food packaging industry is all set to have touch less food handling in the near future.
Despite all the precautions, after all is said and done, there still is bound to be some rogue bacterial that escapes into the food. In order to be absolutely certain of the cleanliness of the food, there are many restaurant kitchens that are hiring disinfectant companies that specialise in fully sanitising a kitchen and making sure that not even a single pathogen makes it to the food.
The Texas-based company Xenex Disinfecting Services has created a robotic lighting pole that shines every 4.7 seconds with a disinfecting UV beam of light. This interesting approach to sanitising is very effective since light can often reach corners where humans cannot. With UV technology improving every day, disinfecting robots will soon be seen in all public places and not only in kitchens.
The Future of the Robotic Food Industry
Although recent advances in robotics have enabled food automation like never before, there are still many niches and pitfalls that need to be addressed by food manufacturers before their factories go completely contact-less.
The main strength of robotics is that it can streamline any repetitive human process into a single robotic one. However, the processes of food production are not always repetitive and barley every transfer over from one food item to the next. This variation is the barrier that needs to be overcome if the food industry is to ensure end-to-end protection from pathogens.