Cal-Maine Foods managed to sell over 12 billion eggs in 2020. How do you think they managed to process so many eggs with minimal wastage?
The answer lies in robotics. They’re handling crucial aspects like sorting, case packaging, cartoning, and more.
Our toy friends are transforming every step of the supply chain - right from agriculture to food delivery. And it’s not just eggs that robots are helping. There are cakes, juice boxes, milk cartons, and more.
We have the answers to three basic questions related to food packaging robots. Who knows, you might become a staunch robot case packing proponent by the end of this.
That is an important question to ask. Assembly lines are doing many things by themselves, so why make the switch to robotics?
There are four significant reasons why robots are causing ripples in the food packaging world.
When combined with vision systems and data-driven algorithms, robots are a force to reckon with. Their throughput can beat that of manual workers and yield uniform results.
Additionally, they can function for longer hours without any oversight. Along with zero downtime, we can expect an end-product that is almost always error-free.
The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) provides a framework for operating food processing units. Thankfully, we have washdown compatible robots that can be sanitized easily.
Such robotic systems reduce maintenance costs and personnel requirements while maintaining hygiene standards.
Anyone who is remotely connected with the food industry knows about the wastage problem. Traditional factory equipment isn’t built to handle packages of different shapes and sizes. When it encounters an anomaly, there’s always a risk of wastage or equipment damage.
That problem is solved by advanced grippers that can handle fragile food products. So, there won’t be broken eggshells or spilt milk anymore.
Contrary to popular belief, robotic case packaging systems aren’t costly. With rising competition and technological advancements, the cost of operating robots is reducing by the day.
Even if the prices do not fall soon, the investment return will still make it a viable option.
The packaging applications are split into primary, secondary, and tertiary activities.
Primary - It deals with basic packaging required for the food product
Secondary - It deals with an additional layer of packaging to meet hygiene and safety requirements
Tertiary - It deals with shipping and warehousing related aspects
Here are the most important ones in the context of robotics -
At times, automation can cut automation! Food processed by robots might not be uniform all the time. There is an increasing need for robot vision systems to detect the food and place them in the right product line.
So, croissants and bagels can come in different shapes after all.
You must have noticed that frozen sausages or vegetables are wrapped with a transparent sheet. It’s quite likely that a robot did the packing before it got shipped to you.
Robots can handle variations when it comes to wrapping. The shape of the broccoli or the size of the meat doesn’t matter to these intelligent systems.
Just like your home oven, even industrial bakeries struggle with the task of removing food from a pan. While the robots don’t have spatulas, there is something more intricate to pick up the cake.
There’s a custom-designed depanning tool that holds onto the food using a vacuum or tiny pins.
A denesting tool works in tandem with a depanning one.
After the food product is depanned, an empty package is picked up by the denesting robot. Then, the food is placed in the package and shipped ahead for further processing.
That is the most important secondary packaging step. The packaged products are boxed into separate containers robotically.
The boxes are sealed in this stage to avoid contamination in any subsequent step. Modern-day robots can box anything ranging from eggs to cotton candy.
When dealing in high volumes, transporting finished products can be tough. An autonomously guided case loader can reduce the trouble to a great extent. It can pick up and stack a load at designated vacant spots without human oversight.
Companies like Amazon and Arla Dairy have heavy warehousing requirements. Hence, they are among the earliest adopters of this technology.
The process of stacking on pallets is a tertiary activity, but the risk of injury makes it a problem worth mentioning. Cobots or collaborative robots have been instrumental in making the process a safe one.
These machines can often stack loads weighing up to 50 kgs reducing human efforts in the process.
B2C operators have always viewed packaging as a means of communicating with their end-users. In recent years, they seem to be looking for designs that are efficient down to a T.
In such a scenario, robotics makes a case for itself with smart techniques and error-free output.
It’s challenging to adopt robotics for agriculture or food delivery due to cost and regulatory constraints. On the other hand, the food packaging domain presents a great opportunity. Many competitively-priced robotic setups include the latest technology.
Many companies are now looking for packaging solutions beyond the primary levels. For instance, simple tasks performed by case packing systems have found more innovative alternatives.
The packaging industry is set to join the trillion-dollar valuation club by 2023. It means that more food companies could take the packaging automation route soon. Adopting smart-tech like AI and robotics could become the make or break factor.