The United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year about 48 million people are affected by foodborne illnesses. In the case of India, the affected population is estimated to be around 100 million, based on a study conducted in 2011. This number seems to be highly underestimated because of the lack of data accuracy. These estimated cases underline the food contamination risks and the need for food safety. The current pandemic conditions have led to an increase in the risks.
Heavy reliance & scanty automation
Often, food processing plants rely heavily on human intervention for their production lines. Only a few major food processing plants have automated their production lines. Even in case of automated processing plants, they cannot claim it as a 100% unmanned facility yet. An autonomous facility is a distant dream in the food industry and can be realised when other major industries are wholly or partially vested in autonomous operations. With limited technical adoptions in the industry, human workers will be a part of the food industry and will be considered as a major risk for food quality & safety. With human involvement, food contamination is so easy in today’s pandemic-affected world. It can be transferred from operators to food through their hands, even though most of them are wearing gloves today. Cross contamination can be the other scenario when food is processed in these industries. So, the question becomes ‘how can this risk be managed and mitigated?’ Since the issue is related to the direct involvement of humans, the opportunity for technology is to replace humans with some great tactics that resemble them. However, the challenge for robotic automation in food processing is that it requires robots to handle complex food products. Food products are often irregular in shape, slippery and delicate. These irregularities add to the complexities for conventional robots. Conventional robots are typically heavy industry‐grade and are too strong & robust to handle these delicate, complex food products. So, food processing plants require something that resembles human work nature but is robotic in principle.
Conventional vs soft robots
Rather than considering conventional robots that are more industrial and robustly constructed from commercial-grade materials, the food industry requires gentle and soft natured robots. These robots should be constructed of soft materials, such as silicone or similar materials. These silicone-based polymer materials have several advantages that include but are not limited to high temperature, better elasticity, high chemical resistance, optical transparency and excellent electrical properties. Silicone rubber has mechanical properties that can be adopted into soft behaviours, like human hands, and can also tend to show hard behaviours based on processing. This flexible behaviour makes them a real good candidate for the robotic requirements of the food industry.
Food industry robots can produce linear and rotation movements, similar to conventional robots, with soft pneumatic joints for handling the food materials. When soft robots are equipped with required attachments, such as gripper, soft arms etc, to handle food materials, such as fruits, vegetables or meat, they can handle these delicate food products without any damage or waste. Other methods to grasp these delicate food materials could lead to bruises, cuts or damage the food, making it destined for the waste bin.
These soft robots also increase the work environment safety when working along with their human counterparts. The silicone parts and pneumatic joints cannot harm any human that could come across its operation. World of soft robots is slowly emerging; a few commercially viable use cases have been identified and proven to be extremely useful and interesting. One such use case is using the soft robot to pick the food for delivering in vending machines. Soft robots were deployed in a mega pastry shop or a bakery, where they picked and packed baked pastries and cakes with ease. These robot pickers can efficiently handle these delicate foods much faster and with zero contamination. In a lab experiment, zero pickings and packing error resulted in a batch of 350,000 pastry pickings. This error‐free accuracy proves about the efficiency that soft robotics is bringing to the industry.
Safety – A priority & benefit
One could argue about the chances of robots contributing to contamination. While this could result due to human negligence, food processing robots could also be designed with a standard wash‐down procedure as part of their operating cycle. This will eliminate the risk of robotic contamination. As these robots are pneumatic-based, there is no risk of fire hazards either. While it is evident that food safety will be high upon using robots, mainly driven by clean and contamination-free production areas, food processing robots also add to several other benefits for the manufacturers. Robotics can considerably eliminate the food recalls due to contamination, which alone will save millions in sales and lost production. All human‐related issues, such as under-utilisation, worker injuries, worker poor performance, etc will become a thing of the past.
Reduced contamination = maximum shop floor & health safety
Certainly, one type of robot cannot completely replace the complete operation of the plant. However, the integration of robots into the food sector is also showing a significant uptrend due to the stated benefits. While the immediate success of the food industry robots is being experienced in the packing of finished goods and picking of raw food materials, the trend will soon be extended into real‐time food processing, such as chopping, grinding, cutting etc. These operations will be challenging but are definite opportunities for robotics to evolve and replace humans. By developing in these areas, robotics will play a crucial role in ensuring food quality and food safety, which are the top-most priority for food manufacturers. To augment human labours and reduce cross contamination on food production lines, soft robots can definitely help increase the world’s food safety levels & reduce contamination cases to a minimum level. This ensures robots as a mandate for the food industry – for their own and also for people’s safety.