Automation Advances Address Protein Processing Challenges

Food manufacturers face many challenges when it comes to the workforce. The work at food processing facilities can be tedious and repetitive and conducted in environments that may be either extremely hot or cold. COVID-19 disruptions, rising food inflation, and the Great Resignation have further complicated matters. Luckily for the food industry, automation technologies such as robots and machine vision offer an efficient, effective means for solving these issues.

A Hard Application

Recent figures from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) and Association for Advancing Automation (A3) show that food processing companies are deploying robots at record rates. In 2021, an all-time high of 517,385 new industrial robots were installed, according to the IFR’s World Robots report. Of those robots, a record high of 3,402 units (a 25% increase) were installed within the food and beverage industry. Meanwhile, robot sales in North America also hit a new high for the third quarter in a row in 2022, as 12,305 robots were sold in Q3. In that time period, the food and consumer goods industry saw a 13% rise in orders, year over year.

However, implementing robots in food processing facilities presents a set of challenges. In picking and sorting operations, for instance, robots must be able to recognize, analyze for quality assurance, and carefully handle delicate or fragile foods of varying sizes and colors to avoid breaking, bruising, or scarring the products. Deploying automation systems in the protein industry is even more difficult. In these facilities — where raw beef, poultry, or pork are processed, cut, sorted, and packaged — strict food safety standards must be observed. Robot grippers that come into contact with meat, for instance, must be easily sanitized. Furthermore, the different sizes and shapes of cuts of meat can be difficult for traditional robots to pick and place.

A  Soft Solution

Despite these challenges, advancements in technologies such as machine vision, robotic components, and artificial intelligence software are now helping companies automate labor-intensive tasks that could previously only be completed manually. When designing, specifying, and implementing a vision-guided robot system for a food processing facility, one primary focus is ensuring that the robot’s grippers will not damage or destroy products. Recent developments in gripping technology have produced soft, food-grade grippers that enable robots to pick up different products safely and efficiently.

When paired with a pick-and-place robot system, soft grippers can safely and effectively handle a variety of raw protein products and place them into thermoformers at high speeds. Even items with an irregular shape or size, such as raw chicken or beef, can be reliably gripped without needing to change or adapt the automation system’s variables.

Our white paper, Robot Advancements Drive Efficiency, Productivity in Protein Processing, takes a deep dive into this topic, covering the challenges that protein processing facilities face, the specialized components that automation systems in these settings require, and how vision-guided automated picking solutions can help companies in the food industry.