Pick and Place Robot Innovations Deliver for Food Manufacturers

The worldwide need for food has never been greater and, as a result, the food processing industry is struggling to meet the demand. For this reason, smart food manufacturers are turning to automated solutions to boost efficiency, cut costs and ensure quality while also increasing throughput. Because pick and place robots are adept at managing simple tasks that do not require complex decision making and can move products from one place to another faster and with more precision than human workers, they have been used in the food industry for years; however, recent innovations are allowing food processors to apply pick and place robots to more applications than ever before.

The Advantages of Pick and Place Robots in the Food Industry

Food industry production line automated by compressed air

While there are many types and designs of pick and place robots and each is selected for a particular application, the basic operation of pick and place robots remains the same. Mounted on a stable surface, most pick and place robots are equipped with an arm that can reach over and around the work area and is fitted with an end of arm attachment specially designed for gripping the object it needs to pick up.

Once the product is “in hand,” the pick and place robot transfers it from the original location, such as a conveyor belt, to another area for further processing, such as a packaging station.

While this is far from a complex task, the most obvious benefit of automating this process is that pick and place robots can perform the simple duty of moving products faster – some pick and place robots can move as many as 300 items an hour – and more precisely than human workers. Significant advantages of pick and place robots include:

  • Speed: Capable of high speeds, pick and place robots can move many more objects than a manual worker in the same amount of time.
  • Precision and Repeatability: Pick and place robots can be programmed to perform an operation and will do so time after time with extreme precision and without error. Based on programming, items will be picked from the desired location and placed precisely with little to no variation each and every time, which means that items will be assembled, sorted or packaged with high levels of precision, accuracy and repeatability, further boosting quality and ensuring brand reputation and consistency
  • Reduced Contamination: Human workers will require breaks to eat and use the bathroom, which increases the risk of introducing contaminants into the food processing area. The use of pick and place robots will help ensure that this does not happen. In addition, pick and place robots themselves can be designed with sanitary needs in mind, further reducing contamination risks and ensuring compliance with regulations regarding cleanliness and sanitation.
  • Consistency: Human workers tend to grow tired, bored and distracted when performing mundane tasks, which means they are likely to make mistakes or slow down. Using pick and place robots for simple tasks will result in fewer human errors and more consistent, reliable product quality and throughput.
  • Increased Throughput: The ability of pick and place robots to move more products in the same span of time increases productivity and throughput of the line. In addition, because robots do not require breaks or shift changes, production is uninterrupted, further boosting productivity and output.
  • Enhanced Safety: Freeing human workers from repetitive pick and place tasks will reduce injuries related to bending, twisting and lifting, enhancing safety in the facility. In addition, pick and place robots can perform continuously in the extreme temperatures associated with food processing and handle sharp cutting tools without risking injury.

Innovations Spark New Applications

As pick and place robots are growing in popularity in the food industry, manufacturers of these automated solutions continue to optimize them for food handling operations with a special emphasis on handling smaller, variably sized and delicate items, as well as quality control. Two of the most impactful innovations involve the inclusion of vision systems and specially made end of arm tools.

The addition of vision systems enable pick and place robots to “see” the shape of an item and pick it up more effectively, while also assisting with accuracy and quality control as the combination of pick and place robots and vision can be used to inspect product as it is handled. Vision systems also allow these robots to retrieve non-uniform shapes such as produce without issue.

Advanced end of arm tooling is another important innovation that allows more widespread use of pick and place technology in the food industry. Soft grippers and vacuum grippers that can efficiently, yet gently handle soft, delicate, irregularly shaped or easily damaged food products such as produce, eggs and baked goods have been game changers for the food processing industry.

When these developments are coupled with the existing efficiency, speed, accuracy and consistency of automation, the possibilities for introducing pick and place robots to new applications in the food processing industry are endless. Some examples of trending applications include:

Pick and PlaceAs the name implies these automated solutions excel at simple pick and place applications, such as moving food items from one location to another. With the addition of gentle grippers and vision systems, even delicate items such as chocolates, baked goods and produce may be selected from a conveyor belt and moved to another location for further processing or for packaging.
AssemblyPick and place robots can be used to precisely assemble sandwiches or premade salads and place toppings on frozen pizzas, among other applications, and do so with accuracy and consistency so the product is produced in the same order and the same way every time.
PackagingWith the ability to identify and grab even delicate food items, pick and place robots can be used to package fresh and frozen baked goods, place meats on trays, load frozen food items into containers and place chocolates or small, delicate food items into partitioned boxes.
SortingThanks to the ability to see differently shaped items and handle soft foods, pick and place robots can be used to sort items such as fruit and vegetables based on color, size and quality.
DispensingWith proper end of arm tooling, pick and place robots can be used to dispense tomato sauce onto pizzas, icing on cakes or decorate seasonal food items. They can also be used to dispense powders onto products or into containers.
Depanning and DenestingBefore placing baked goods or other items into containers or packages, they must be removed from processing trays or pans. Using vacuum or other grippers, pick and place robots can perform these depanning tasks. Denesting robots can be used to grab the packages the food products will go into from stacks or hoppers. Often, pick and place robots are used in groups to coordinate the performance of these two activities.
Quality Control/InspectionAutomated systems with grippers and vision can be used to inspect food items and packages for defects or contaminants, removing items from the line that don’t meet specifications, helping to improve quality and food safety.

While the food industry has embraced automation, the addition of innovative technologies such as gentle end of arm tools and vision systems has allowed more widespread use of pick and place robots throughout food processing and packaging facilities, helping this growing industry keep up with demand, while also increasing quality and throughput. To learn more about how pick and place robots can enhance your food manufacturing operation, please contact JHFOSTER today.