It has been a while now since cobots (collaborative robots) have started sharing space with humans in their workplaces. The best part is that cobots need not be restricted with light fences or any other type of cage. The reason is they are equipped with sensors that initiate them to stop any kind of movement when they come into contact with foreign objects within a specified circumference. This capacity reduces associated equipment that is required to be installed and makes cobots cheaper in cost.
The last five years have seen cobots work in unison with humans in many industries. Cobots are designed to handle payloads of less than 10 kg. Even with this restriction, the cobot can be used to do many jobs. Now they are extensively used in the food and beverages industry. Let us see how they are put to use and why they are required in the F&B industry in the first place.
Cobots are good at doing repetitive tasks and they reduce the load that would have been strenuous on humans. Therefore these assistive robots are used in the pick and place operations. This is because they can be easily moved to different parts of the production line without the need for disassembly.
The cobot can be used to memorize fixed points of location and specific movements easily. Thus they can be easily programmed to do the repetitive jobs involved in the production of different SKUs, say, in a production line.
Use of AI in the Food and Beverages Industry
In addition to all of these innovations, the F&B industry is also using AI to improve decision-making. Artificial intelligence (AI) is all about helping the machine learn continuously from different experiences.
Pick and Place
Many food packaging and processing industries are using cobots to enhance food safety, decrease injuries while at work, and improve efficiency. The reason that cobots combined with AI are being used in the F&B industry is that technology has improved and is helping these humanoid machines to pick up fragile parts with their mechanized digits more easily.
Thus in some food industries, these cobots pick up tomatoes, bread and eggs without actually destroying them. An example is CMC Food in New Jersey, which has installed just 2 cobot egg handlers replacing all the humans that were in the production line doing the job. The cobots are handling an incredible number of 100,000 eggs in an hour.
Some companies have even become ready to face the challenges posed by items of different sizes and shapes or when the items in a production line are not uniform. Robots with soft grippers are getting more popular though there is still a long way to go. These grippers make the robots more dextrous and enable them to handle objects of different shapes, sizes and weights. Soft Robotics is a manufacturer of such robotic grippers. Just Born Quality Confections is a company that has well used these soft grippers to speed up the production of its brand of marshmallows without causing any damage to them.
In addition to being able to perform repetitive tasks efficiently, food manufacturers are relying on a combination of robotics and AI that helps them to track consumer demand and related products. They are then able to match this demand with the production figures using data analysis. The food companies will eventually end up with more control over transportation and storage of these food items and this will enable better control on food safety and quality checks.
A few food manufacturers have started using AI to curb wastage by calibrating machines installed along the production lines. Many of these machines are programmed to use an optimum amount of raw materials based on varieties and sizes. Kraft Heinz Co. has plans to invest in robotics to identify waste in production lines and thereby increase efficiencies.
Robotics may even offer a solution to curb food wastage even at the growing and picking stages. Abundant Robotics in California is a company that has been working with apple pickers for the last four years helping to automate the picking process.
Retailers are always interested to know which of the products should be stocked and which others can be delivered at the last minute. AI-powered algorithms have been devised to analyse how buyers behave when there are promotions, how social media influences them and how they feel during inclement weather. Machine learning happens when this data is quickly analysed repetitively in real time. Retailers and suppliers are then kept informed about demand levels, shortages and waste of products.
Data that is continuously collected using AI and robotics help food manufacturers to decide whether specific foods should be removed from the supply chain if contamination is detected. In cases of food being recalled, AI and robotics would help to find out as to which batch was contaminated and where it was routed to. Thus, food that is good need not be wasted on suspicion of contamination.
Such a move would also lessen food-borne illnesses that arise out of food contamination. Artur Dubrawski is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University who works with the USDA and has developed a machine-learning lab to develop AI software that helps the department to track every single step of the food supply chain. The machine learning, in this case, necessitates large amounts of data to be collected so that major food recalls can be pre-empted.
With the increased sophistication that the robots can now boast of and proliferation of AI technologies, experts opine that their use in the food and beverages industry will only grow. It is predicted that applications of robotics in this industry will find a place even in the crop growth stage, it is harvesting, food processing, storage, primary and secondary packaging and ending in grocery deliveries and order fulfilments.
With cobots working alongside humans in the food and beverages industry, cobots will help humans do better jobs, and humans will be able to successfully train robots to handle a variety of objects. Infusion if AI into this combination will help to improve the efficiency of the food industry and improve public safety.