AI and Robotics: Into the Future of Food & Beverage Engineering
Robotic automation solutions include automated picking solutions, machine perception, and artificial intelligence (AI). Such transformational robotic automation solutions can enable machine builders to solve the hardest piece-picking problems in many industries—including food & beverage processing.
Gray partners with Soft Robotics, an award-winning technology company that designs and builds robotic solutions. We sat down with Rick Graff, senior product manager, Automations, and Greg Powers, vice president, Solutions Architecture, of Gray Solutions, A Gray Company; as well as Austin Harvey, director of product management for Soft Robotics Inc., to talk about the various benefits of such collaboration, and how embracing robotic automated solutions can help move the food & beverage industry into the future.
Benefits of Automation in F&B
The use of industrial automation, particularly as it relates to food and personnel safety in the food production facility of tomorrow, offers many benefits and returns on investment. “Those benefits and corresponding returns include reduction/mitigation of ergonomic injuries, reduction or elimination of human contact directly with the food product, and increased production due to continuous operation,” said Graff and Powers.
Moreover, many workers are learning to work alongside these sophisticated machines and systems of the future—often even embracing them. “These applications, through the use of both standard and collaborative robots, allow the worker of tomorrow to augment many tasks that were traditionally (or previously) difficult for a human to perform,” they stressed.
There are safety benefits to automation, for both personnel and the product itself. Many tasks that typically require lifting heavy objects can result in injury-related claims; the use of a robot to accomplish these tasks is becoming more and more a reality.
And, with the introduction of the Food Modernization and Safety Act (FSMA), coupled with increased fears about the spread of viruses in the food supply chain, industrial automation is more critical than ever. Austin Harvey points out: “Labor shortages have always challenged the food manufacturing sector, but the Covid-19 pandemic has placed increased pressure on the market. Industrial automation in primary packaging can significantly reduce the risk of food contamination.”
AI, Predictability, and Food Safety
There are many factors that play into the automation of a food & beverage facility. According to Graff and Powers, “The automation process typically relies on a set of inputs tied to some specified criteria that can be quantified and measured to ensure the product being manufactured meets typical certified regulatory agency, as well as customer requirements.” They went on to describe a typical robotic system that has been deployed to inspect food products. It would normally have a machine vision system, a robot equipped with a gripper and, typically, a moving conveyor that transports the product through the machine vision system for inspection and then downstream to a robot for final disposition of the product. “The machine vision system is configured to understand and look for variations in the characteristics of the product and make a decision on whether to pick the product or allow it to pass based on the specific criteria, such as color, shape, quality, defect detection, etc.,” they concluded.
The types of components used in the system can be vital for product safety and integrity. At Soft Robotics, the focus is on “building reliable picking and packaging solutions for irregular and/or easily damaged items, such as you would find in bakery, produce, or protein categories, using our soft grasping and Soft.AI™ solutions,” said Harvey.
Food Safety During a Pandemic
Robotics and AI can be vital to help ensure the food supply remains contaminant-free. This has been especially important during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are many steps being taken in the F&B engineering industry to help ensure contaminant-free production lines. Graff and Powers say that they are “seeing a rise in demand in robotic technology to space the worker out, as well as the use of specific food-rated grippers.”
The gripper is FDA-rated for direct pick and place technology for manufactured food products, as well as other food-related packaging. It can be sanitized and, when used properly, should mitigate the human element in possibly passing along airborne related illness or even other byproduct contamination.
The pair continued, “In many cases, these are situations where workers work very close to each other on a production line… the robot, coupled with a technology like the Soft Robotics gripper and spacing of personnel on the production line, is likely not going away even after the pandemic is over.”
Harvey added, “Keeping people socially distanced and keeping robots doing the work to maintain food and worker safety,” helps keep infections down in the plant. This translates to fewer risks to workers’ health and safety, as well as improved food quality and traceability.
“Our solutions allow humans to maintain distance by enabling fewer people per shift. Soft Robotics’ Soft.AI platform allows for completely remote picking through its virtual interface,” he continued.
AI: The Way of the Future
We will likely continue to see the rise of AI and robotics in the industrial automation workspace, including more widespread use of this technology coupled with higher end vision systems. This includes the use of hyperspectral camera systems coupled with AI to broaden the spectral capabilities above and beyond human capability.
Hyperspectral imaging “sees” outside of the normal visible spectrum a human can see. A hyperspectral vision system, coupled with a robot and AI, can detect variations that a human cannot in determining proper quality control for food and beverage products.
“Agricultural products subject to bruises or early ripeness, or other quality criteria, can be detected with such a system and will ensure the arrival of high-quality food product shipped to the end-user. We are currently using these technologies to achieve a wider band of food production inspection that has traditionally not been met,” said Graff and Powers. The bandwidth is also much broader, they averred, leading robotics “into spaces where traditional automation systems did not tread, and that includes the use of the robot in agricultural applications to harvest, sort, and package items traditionally accomplished by humans only.”
Graff, Powers, and Harvey all agreed that AI will have a continuously growing role in all industries, particularly food & beverage. “Today, food manufactures are using AI to perform important tasks, such as product measuring, inspecting, and food safety compliance,” states Harvey.