Food and beverage facilities have historically operated under more stringent cleanliness and hygiene standards. And new rules and regulations in the U.S. and overseas are raising the bar even higher. The recently announced Preventative Controls rule and the Produce rule—both part of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA)—are one such example. However, while regulatory compliance is getting tougher, robotics can help meet the new demands.
Traceability and food safety
The need for traceability is a current trend in the food sector. An automated warehouse can help food and beverage managers easily track and trace products in the warehouse, whereas a warehouse utilizing only manual operations is more vulnerable to traceability errors.
“[Humans] are prone to mistakes, but with the robotics side of things, you get consistency, reliability and your inspections go much more smoothly,” says David Noble, VP of sales and marketing at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-based Seegrid.
An automated warehouse can assist warehouse managers in validating exactly where the products are located in the warehouse along with where the products are destined.
Food safety compliance and regulations are also hot topics in the industry. Implementing robotics equipment assures that food and beverage products are being handled in an appropriate, safe manner. Robotics also decreases the probability of contamination by reducing the amount of human interaction with food and beverage products.
Due to the ongoing food safety trend, the need for higher sanitation requirements for robotics equipment is a recent design consideration. Robots used in industries such as meat and poultry are designed with materials that can endure intense chemical wash-downs. Additionally, the equipment is constructed with corrosion resistant and non-absorbent materials that prohibit the movement of foodborne pathogens.
“Customers want stuff that’s easy to clean,” remarks Dick Motley, senior account manager at Rochester Hills, Michigan-based FANUC Robotics. “We have a robot in our product line that was designed from the ground up as a food handler, so it has USDA acceptance. It’s a very clean machine—knowing that they wanted to handle exposed food product really drove a lot of the mechanical design and material selection.”
Alongside the necessity for sterile equipment, customers are looking for equipment that’s simple, yet intuitive. There’s a definite move towards the standardization of robotics equipment from an interface perspective. The incentive behind creating an intuitive friendly interface is creating equipment that is easier to understand and maintain.
Innovations with machine vision are also becoming more prevalent in the industry. Vision is a huge advantage with robotics equipment, particularly with autonomous machinery. Some vision solutions, such as stereo vision, require the need to bury wires into the warehouse floor to give autonomous machinery a map of where to navigate throughout the warehouse. Although stereo vision can help guide machinery, it’s also a very invasive form of vision technology and doesn’t offer much flexibility. FANUC’s iRVision is noninvasive and integrates with the company’s robotic controller and alleviates downtime. iRVision’s cameras take up to 120 frames per second and can recognize the freshness and quality of food items. For instance, if the packing of a food or beverage product is damaged, the cameras will recognize that.
In addition to the innovations listed above, automation offers numerous advantages for the food and beverage sector, such as an increase in throughput. Robots have the ability to work nonstop 24 hours a day, seven days a week; therefore a food or beverage company’s productivity levels are greatly augmented. In addition to increased speed and reliability, robotic equipment also boosts safety.