Robotics is affecting every link in the food supply chain. Here are a few ways it’s changing the industry.
The food industry is undergoing transformation. Food demand is increasing as the world’s population approaches 7.5 billion. Food suppliers are under pressure to improve their efficiency. Not only that, but consumers want higher-quality, more sustainable food at their fingertips.
Robotics and automation are critical components of the solution. The food manufacturing industry has been relatively slow to adopt robotics in comparison to other industries. However, in recent years, robotics has begun to infiltrate almost every link in the food supply chain, from the field to the kitchen.
Robotics in Agriculture
Crop agriculture is the start of the food journey. By 2022, the precision agriculture industry is expected to be worth $7.87 billion. Robotics plays a significant role in this. By the same year, agricultural drones alone are expected to be worth $3.9 billion.
Planting, identifying, and sorting seedlings are examples of robotic applications. There are also self-driving tractors, weeding and harvesting robots. Drones and self-driving cars are being used to monitor and analyse crops. One recent Harvard research project aims to address a critical issue for global agriculture: the decline of bee populations. To pollinate crops, the researchers propose using a swarm of tiny drones.
For non-plant agriculture, robotics is also being introduced to the dairy, poultry and beef farming industries. Applications include autonomous feeding and milking, egg collection and sorting, and autonomous cleaning.
Food Manufacturing Robotics
Autonomous food production could be the key to meeting rising food demand. The global food automation industry is expected to more than double in value over the next five years, reaching $2.5 billion in 2022. Due to popularity of ready-to-eat foods in that region, the Asia-Pacific market is a major driver.
Food manufacturing can be divided into two categories:
- Primary processing entails cleaning, sorting, transporting, and blending raw food products. Butchery and fruit and vegetable sorting are two examples of robotic applications.
- Secondary processing entails combining ingredients to create new food products through cooking, baking, chilling, and other methods. Product sorting, defect removal, and mixing are examples of robotic applications.
Robotics applications tend to be better suited to secondary processing, as the food is more standardized by then. However, we are starting to see more primary processing robots.
Robotics in Food Packaging
Food packaging robots have long been used in various parts of the food supply chain. The most recent advancement, however, is that the entire packaging process can be automated.
Food packaging can be split into three stages:
- Primary packaging — Individual foods are packaged. For example, a pick-and-place robot puts sweets into plastic tubs.
- Secondary packaging — Individual packages are grouped together. For example, another pick-and-place robot stacks those plastic tubs into a larger box.
- Tertiary packaging — Secondary packages are grouped for shipping. For example, a palletizing robot puts many boxes onto a pallet.
It seems likely that robotic packaging will continue to be one of the main applications in the food industry.
Robotics in Food Delivery
Robotic food delivery has recently received a lot of attention. Following their first successful (and very noisy) delivery by drone at the end of last year, Dominos Pizza announced earlier this year that it would be introducing autonomous ground vehicles to deliver pizzas.
While self-driving food delivery may appear to be “just the latest fad,” it actually addresses a growing market trend. There has been a significant increase in demand for restaurant-quality, home-delivered, ready-to-eat food in recent years. Whether or not self-driving cars will become commonplace is debatable, but our appetite for takeout is definitely changing the food industry.