Robots and the food industry

Robots and the food industry

Photo: Kinwun/istock/getty Images

The Canadian food industry faces many challenges, from labor shortages and supply chain disruptions, to increasing input costs and changing consumer expectations. Many of these challenges can be addressed by automating processes so that they can be made faster, safer and more reliable.

While the shift to automation has been slower in the food industry than in other industries, the use of automation, robotics, and data analytics has the potential to transform the food and beverage industry in Canada. By investing in technology, the industry can become more flexible, traceable and transparent, while increasing capacity and ensuring our food supply chain remains strong, secure, sustainable and competitive in the global marketplace. Automation also has the potential to help attract and retain labor, since it can make work safer for employees, can boost companies’ profitability, and even help them expand into non-traditional areas such as airports, hotels, and conventions.

The Canadian Food Innovation Network (CFIN) is a non-profit organization with a mandate to help grow the Canadian economy by helping to accelerate innovation in the food industry through communications, collaboration, and investments across the Canadian food system. CFIN offers financing programs and services that help food companies and their partners introduce innovative ideas
to life.

seeing is believing
Last spring, CFIN presented Robotics in Action: Seeing is Believing, a virtual event hosted by Jim Beretta, President of Customer Attraction, which focuses on robotics, automation, and applications. Beretta has spoken with several Canadian entrepreneurs whose companies are driving technological change in the food industry, and showcased automation solutions at Western University, including Mycionics, Ghost Kitchen Brands, Sushi 168, and robotics systems from SJW Robotics, Anubis 3D, Gastronomous Technologies, JMP Solutions, and Armo Tool and Tiny Mile Robotics. Beretta was also a speaker at Food and Beverage Magazine’s recent Max Uptime event, presenting how robots are changing food.

Some of the main points of the presentations are:
Automation and robotics don’t reduce jobs
Robots and automated systems are designed to perform tasks that are dangerous, dirty or repetitive, and are a solution to the industry’s current labor shortage. While robots perform tasks such as picking and packing, employees are freed up to complete more value-added and skilled tasks. Collaborative robotic systems are designed with added safeguards to work alongside their human counterparts.

Automation cost goes down
In the past decade, the costs of implementing automated systems or robots have decreased, while performance and consistency have increased dramatically. There are also many new developments in gripping techniques, solving old robotic challenges such as distinguishing between products or boxes of different sizes and shapes.

Robotic systems fit current operations
Automation and robotics systems are now easy to integrate into food operations and are often designed so that companies can add one piece of technology at a time, ensuring success and worker comfort. By working with technology companies, food companies can integrate plug-and-play components or create a unique, tailor-made system that features different technology adapted to suit their needs.

Automation allows operators to optimize energy and materials
Technology that provides food producers with real-time data analytics enables optimizing energy and raw material use, reducing food and energy waste, and achieving higher production capacities. Data analytics can also be used to predict preventative maintenance in the system and prevent a drop in productivity. Many companies rely on health compliance-targeted robots to safely and reliably assemble foods such as protein and uncooked ready-to-eat meals for retail or healthcare, where safe food handling is paramount.

Automated food service offerings go far beyond vending
Quick service kiosks offering a wide range of hot and cold food options such as salad, pizza and cooked pasta are popping up on campuses, shopping malls and other public places. Unlike vending machines, kiosks offer made-to-order meals that are prepared while you watch in just minutes, with a variety of customizations and payment options available. With a low carbon footprint and minimal labor needs, the kiosks have the potential to replace QSR units in some locations.
Dana McCauley is the Director of Experience at the Canadian Food Innovation Network.

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