In an age of rapid industrialization and intense competition, food processors are looking to increase throughput, regulate line changeovers and accommodate shorter production runs – which is leading the industry to see an increase of robotic integration into upstream operations. Food processors are investing in pick and place robots that can handle standard applications as well as delicate applications, such as fresh fruit and washdown applications, such as meat products. With the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) predicting the number of pick and place robots to grow by 4% by 2016, food processors are already seeing how effectively the technology solves pain points at the processing stage. Today, the breadth of robots is expanding – they no longer primarily exist in downstream operations such as packaging and palletizing.

Efficient product sortation and placement is critical to remaining competitive and protecting profitability. There are 10 key ways in which food processors utilize pick and place robots to improve upstream operations.

Brand image and product integrity are one of the main concerns for processors and pick and place robots aid in protecting unpackaged food from damage. They can handle standard applications as well as delicate applications such as fresh fruit, vegetables and baked goods.

Pick and place robots minimize exposure to contamination, protecting food from external environmental factors and reducing the potential for food safety issues.

Robots increase productivity by automating labor-intensive tasks. They handle repetitive motion over long durations, which decreases ergonomic issues associated with manual labor.

When processing lines involve a fast-moving conveyor, automating pick and place activities will eliminate manual errors. Robots perform repetitive tasks with precision and speed and they do it with minimal risk of picking and placing the incorrect product.

Due to the high precision and reliability of robots in pick and place applications, the cost of waste and scrap is greatly reduced. Processors are better positioned to negate any adverse impact to the bottom line and to protect their profitability.

Robotics, when used in conjunction with visual inspection, keeps non-conforming products from moving downstream. Catching non-conformities at the earliest point possible in production, provides processors with peace of mind that compromised products will not enter the market.

Dexterity and speed of robots pack products in a matter of seconds, allowing products to be picked from one line and placed on another for finishing.

The automation of product changeovers speed throughput by eliminating format-specific change parts. Robots are guided by pre-determined recipes and can seamlessly accommodate any change in production.

Vision systems guide robots for greater flexibility in product handling and packing. The ability to handle rainbow (variety) packs allows for greater product diversity with retailers.

Pick and place robots quickly sort products with varying shapes and sizes to facilitate downstream operations.

To maintain a competitive edge, food processors must constantly find ways to cut costs and improve efficiency – all while accommodating shorter production runs and varying requests from retailers. They must ensure the quality and safety of their products. Integrating robots helps processors remain profitable, competitive and flexible. Robotic integration in upstream processing will continue to expand in the food industry – we’ve only just begun to realize the benefits.