Tag Archives: automation

Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine
FST Soapbox

Four Benefits of Automation in Seafood Processing

By Emily Newton
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Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine

Seafood processing work typically comes with harsh working conditions like wet floors, sharp tools, heavy machinery and long working hours. Tasks like gutting, cutting and canning are almost always dull, dirty and dangerous—the “three D’s” work that manufacturers often struggle to fill. As a result, many businesses turn to outsourcing to handle seafood processing needs.

Automation offers another solution. With modern robotics and automated systems, businesses can streamline seafood processing work, making it easier to process seafood closer to where it was caught or farmed. These are four of the top benefits for companies that automate seafood processing.

1. Minimizing Seafood Processing Labor Costs

Likely the most significant benefit of automation in seafood processing is lower labor costs. An automated solution can either support or replace workers at some point in a seafood processing workflow, allowing businesses to shift workers where they are needed.

As a result, these businesses are able to significantly reduce their labor costs, which is often one of the biggest expenses in seafood processing.

Because the seafood industry faces a significant and growing labor shortage—like most other industries—the labor-cost-reducing benefit of automation will become even more valuable over the next few years.

While the United States government is taking steps to manage this labor shortage—like handing out additional H-2B worker visas for seafood processors—it’s likely that the seafood industry will face a tight labor market for the foreseeable future.

2. Improving Productivity and Preventing Process Errors

Another benefit of automation can include greater efficiency and reduced waste. Fortunately, many stages in the seafood processing industry can be automated if plants invest in the proper equipment. De-heading, gutting, fin removal, and skinning are some of the tasks that food processors can automate. While the manual approach is more conventional, it’s often both time consuming and more difficult.

When workers are tired or inexperienced, they may also make mistakes or unclean cuts, potentially leading to wasted fish, slower work, and reduced product quality. Process mistakes can also make food less safe. Errors made in almost every step of the process, from gutting to canning, can potentially create food safety issues that may put customers’ health at risk.

Machines, by contrast, are very consistent. They can work for multiple shifts in a row with the right maintenance, providing the same level of quality over many hours. Typically, if machines make mistakes, they also make the same mistakes. As a result, managers may be able to more quickly find and adjust the parameters or tooling they need to change to resolve process errors.

Mistakes made by human workers may be less consistent and require more costly interventions, like training, to manage.

3. Using Automation to Make Seafood Workers Safer

In addition to reducing labor costs and making seafood processing more efficient, automation can also make this work much safer. Tasks like cutting, gutting and canning can be, by nature, very dangerous for workers.

Other occupational hazards of seafood processing may include extremely low temperatures, heavy equipment, poor ergonomics, excessive noise levels, and exposure to allergens or toxins.

These threats can lead to both acute injury and long-term health conditions, like musculoskeletal injuries (MSIs) from nonergonomic movements or hearing loss from excessive noise levels.

The tasks that automation is best at handling—work that is dirty, dull or dangerous—also tend to be some of the least-safe work available. These tasks are repetitive, potentially nonergonomic, and expose workers directly to threats like biological aerosols or sharp cutting tools.

Every one of these tasks that a processor is able to partially or fully automate is a risk that a worker won’t be exposed to.

Even if it’s not possible to fully replace a human worker with an automated solution – like a cutting machine, packaging machine, or pick-and-place robot—any automation investment can generally make a processing plant safer.

With a targeted automation investment, processors may be able to make seafood processing work both much more appealing and safer, helping to manage two of the most significant challenges facing processors right now.

4. Making Seafood Processing Facilities More Flexible

Modern market conditions are volatile. Labor costs, raw material prices and consumer demands can change quickly. Inflation has also made operating expenses much harder for businesses to predict.

The ability to adapt fast to changing market conditions is necessary for seafood processors to be successful. Because experts predict the market will remain unpredictable, flexibility and agility in processing will remain invaluable assets in the near future.

Modern solutions are also helping to make automated systems even more adaptable, allowing processors to use the same technology for many purposes.

One good example is cobots, or collaborative robotics. These are robots built to work in close proximity with human workers and perform tasks that conventional automation systems can’t generally perform. By leveraging safety features like padded joints, force limiters, and motion detectors, they can work in the same space as a human worker with less risk of injury or harm.

Manufacturers and seafood processors use cobots for a variety of different applications—including pick-and-place, machine tending, depalletizing, and packaging goods. Some of the same technology that makes cobots safer, like machine vision, also enable new use-cases. For example, machine vision can allow a cobot to perform quality-control processes, like removing low-quality or unsafe products from a production line.

Most cobots, in addition to being built for safety, are also designed to be slotted into or out of workflows as needed. Lightweight and easy to reprogram, manufacturers and processors can quickly repurpose a cobot for many different tasks as needed, allowing them to stay responsive to changing consumer demands or shifting material prices.

As a result, these bots are a good automation investment for businesses that want to streamline work without sacrificing the flexibility that can sometimes be lost in the transition from manual to automatic processes.

Automation Helps Make Seafood Processing Safer and More Efficient

For seafood processors, automation may soon become an essential investment. In the industry, automated solutions can provide benefits like improved efficiency, reduced waste, greater safety, and better plant flexibility. New solutions, in particular, are helping seafood processors to keep their plants close to where the seafood is caught and farmed.

The seafood industry is likely to face a tight labor market and supply chain disruptions into the future. By adopting automated solutions, processors can more easily adapt to a changing market.

Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine
FST Soapbox

Packaging Automation Can Be an Essential Tool for Food Manufacturers

By Emily Newton
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Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine

Food and beverage manufacturers face various challenges—including a labor shortage, rising demand and ongoing supply chain disruptions. Food packaging automation can be an essential tool for these businesses, as the technology can improve manufacturing productivity without hiring additional workers.

As demand continues to rise over the next few years, and as the labor shortage continues, packaging automation will likely become more important. This is why manufacturers are turning to the technology and how innovations in Industry 4.0 solutions may reshape food manufacturing this decade.

Food and Beverage Manufacturers Are Doing More With Less

Food manufacturers face the same market challenges that most companies are navigating right now. Even two years after the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the supply chain remains unstable, demand is volatile and job openings continue to outstrip available workers.

Consumer expectations are also changing. A growing segment of American shoppers expects businesses to deliver items faster than ever, putting greater pressure on manufacturers to accelerate production and logistics operations.

These trends aren’t likely to reverse anytime soon, even as the pandemic eases and vaccines become available globally. Some experts predict that the labor shortage may be on track to last for years, and the lack of essential raw materials or components may similarly drag on well into the future. This means hunkering down and attempting to weather current market conditions will not be an effective strategy. Instead, businesses will have to experiment with new ways to improve productivity, reduce operating costs and accelerate delivery times.

Automation may become an essential strategy, especially for food and beverage manufacturing tasks that have traditionally been time-consuming and challenging to automate.

How Food Packaging Automation Helps Manufacturers Stay Competitive

Manufacturers that need to increase factory throughput may struggle to bring on additional labor necessary to improve production. Instead, solutions that help them increase productivity without hiring—like packaging automation—may help companies meet existing demand.

Packaging automation tools allow manufacturers to automate various tasks that are tedious, dull, time-consuming and potentially dangerous.

Industry 4.0 technology also allows packaging solutions to automate work that previously required human labor. For example, AI-powered automation systems can use machine vision—algorithms that enable machines to “see” objects — for quality control and manufacturing purposes. These systems may be able to automatically package items or visually inspect them for defects, allowing businesses to improve quality control processes without the dedication of additional labor.

Food packaging automation can also help make food and beverage products more consistent and safer for workers and consumers. Quality control processes are often tedious or repetitive. Throughout a shift, workers assigned to these tasks tend to slow down and make mistakes, potentially allowing defective or dangerous products to move further along the production line.

Automated packaging systems are remarkably consistent when well-maintained. They can run for hours at a time without the same risks that may come with human workers assigned to tedious or repetitive tasks.

Some internet grocery retailers are also using a combination of AI and RFID to improve package branding and drive sales. RFID allows businesses to embed unique identifiers into the packaging of every product they sell, making it possible to collect deeper information about consumer demands and purchasing habits.

Other AI systems use IoT devices that gather real-time data on equipment operations to streamline or automate maintenance checks. For example, a predictive maintenance approach uses AI forecasting algorithms and IoT data to monitor machines and predict when they will need maintenance. The approach is similar to preventive maintenance but is more effective at keeping machines online. In practice, the forecasting power of a predictive maintenance algorithm can reduce downtime and maintenance costs.

Similar AI technology can also be used in the packaging design process. An AI algorithm trained on a library of packaging data may be used to create new packaging—helping businesses identify novel options when it comes to shape or material choice.

Other Advantages of Packaging Automation

Reducing the cost of packaging can also allow manufacturers to spend more money on higher-quality food wrapping—which can, in turn, improve customer satisfaction and drive revenue. For example, many manufacturers have begun to offer eco-friendly packaging materials that can be customized with branding elements. These packaging materials will attract customers who want to buy products from eco-friendly brands. They will also help manufacturers build deeper client relationships while growing additional company awareness.

Over time, these decisions can help a business transform its packaging into a branding tool. This will require an additional up-front investment, but the improvements will pay for themselves over time.
Packaging Automation Can Help Food and Beverage Manufacturers Adapt

Cutting-edge industry technology has made packaging solutions more effective than ever. The right equipment allows food and beverage manufacturers to automate various packaging, design and maintenance tasks—making individual facilities and businesswide processes much more efficient.

Eric Weisbrod, InfinityQS
FST Soapbox

Quality in the Cloud: 5 Tools to Remedy Food Safety Fears

By Eric Weisbrod
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Eric Weisbrod, InfinityQS

The food and beverage industry has seen a big push for digital transformation over the past several years. Consumers and regulators alike are demanding increasingly high levels of safety and traceability across the global supply chain—driving food manufacturers to modernize their approach to quality control.

Now, many are looking to retire outdated software or inefficient paper-based systems that limit visibility across their production lines, plants and supply chains. They are exploring modern tools that enable proactive quality and safety monitoring. And fortunately, cloud technology is making this shift easier than ever.

Cloud-based quality management solutions offer simple deployment, rapid scalability and low up-front costs—breaking down many of the barriers to digital transformation. Food manufacturers gain anytime, anywhere access to critical resources needed to maintain product quality, ensure compliance and drive continuous improvement across their organizations.

To make it all possible, food manufacturers should select a cloud-based solution that offers the following features and tools.

1. A centralized data repository for improved visibility, compliance and collaboration

In a traditional manufacturing environment, quality and process data are locked away in paper files, Excel spreadsheets, or on-premises software. These data silos prevent manufacturers from monitoring enterprise-wide quality performance, and inhibit data sharing with external parties across the supply chain.

But the cloud can break down those silos. Cloud solutions provide a single, unified data repository where food manufacturers can standardize and centralize quality data—from all processes, production lines, and sites in their enterprise, as well as from suppliers, co-packers and third-party producers.

The resulting “big picture” view of quality enables food companies to:

  • Perform enterprise-wide analyses to pinpoint problem areas, identify best practices, and prioritize resources—ultimately improving quality and compliance across the entire organization.
  • Verify ongoing regulatory compliance and enforce accountability for all required checks and tests.
  • View supplier data in real time to prevent food safety issues and ensure incoming ingredients meet quality standards before they are ever shipped. Only the highest-quality ingredients get accepted and incorporated into products.
  • Monitor supplier performance to better manage suppliers and prevent supply chain disruptions.
  • Collaborate with contract manufacturers and packers to make sure they uphold quality standards and protect the brand.

2. Real-time SPC for proactive response on the plant floor

A preventative approach to quality and safety just isn’t possible when using manual methods for data collection and analysis. Operators spend valuable time recording data with a pencil and paper, then sift through page after page of control charts—on top of all their other daily responsibilities. It’s easy to see how mistakes could be made and production issues could be missed.

Quality teams are also at a disadvantage, reviewing old data about products that have already come off the production line. Overall, everyone operates in “firefighting” mode. They try to fix one issue after another, but it’s often already too late. Some problems may not be spotted until final inspection, if even caught at all. Manufacturers end up dealing with defective products, wasted resources, and damaging recalls.

The cloud transforms how food manufacturers collect and analyze quality data. Cloud-based statistical process control (SPC) software can automatically collect measurement values from a variety of data sources, then monitor processes in real time. When the software detects specification or statistical violations, automated alarms instantly alert key personnel. The appropriate teams can take immediate action to correct any issue before it gets out of hand.

In addition, food manufacturers can put up further safeguards on the plant floor with “workflows.” Essentially, these are prescriptive guides for responding to quality issues, predefined in the cloud-based quality solution. They help all employees respond consistently and effectively to specific problems, and then document the corrective actions taken. These responses can then be analyzed across an entire company, allowing manufacturers to spot trends and prevent reoccurring issues.

Ultimately, operators and quality personnel can stay on top of potential problems and prevent unsafe or defective goods from reaching customers—without having to manually monitor every line, in every plant, around the clock.

3. Timed data collections to keep everyone on the same page

Routine sampling and quality checks are critical for food safety and compliance with regulatory and industry-specific standards. But how can manufacturers ensure required checks are completed according to schedule? After all, the plant floor is a busy place and where it’s easy for operators to get sidetracked tackling other issues.

Here, cloud-based quality systems can help. These solutions enable manufacturers to set up timed data collections, which send automated notifications to remind operators when it’s time to perform HACCP, CCP, and other critical quality and safety checks. Operators can stay focused on production, without having to watch the clock or worry about missing a check. Plant supervisors also get alerts if a data collection is missed—no matter where they are working—so they can keep everyone on top of compliance.

4. Digital reporting to make audits a breeze

Every manufacturer dreads the auditing process. It is time consuming and resource intensive, adding another layer of stress and complexity to the already complex nature of food production. Those that rely on paper records and spreadsheets usually struggle to piece together and produce auditor-requested information. And failed audits can have major consequences.

Instead, quality records and other compliance documentation can be digitized, stored and made quickly accessible via the cloud. This makes it easy for food companies to pull historical data for specific timeframes. Reports can be produced in just minutes to complete regulatory, third-party certification, or internal audits—rather than the days or weeks it would typically take to put together a report from a complicated trail of paper.

5. Lot genealogy for improved traceability and recall response

Recalls are another big source of stress for food manufacturers. After all, food quality or safety incidents that result in a recall not only hurt profits and brand reputation, but also put the health and lives of consumers at risk. Fortunately, recalls can be mitigated or avoided through better traceability.

Cloud-based quality solutions can help food companies trace raw ingredient lot codes through the manufacturing process and supply chain. With all quality data stored in that centralized cloud repository mentioned earlier, manufacturers can generate genealogical “trees” showing the relationship between incoming ingredients and outgoing products.

This information in critical for preventing and responding to product recalls. If a safety issue is found within a specific ingredient lot, for example, manufacturers can quickly identify output lots where those ingredients were used. They can prevent those finished lots from being released, or in the worst-case scenario, remove those lots from store shelves in a swift, targeted recall.

A Tactical Approach to Digital Transformation

Looking at the FDA’s New Era of Smarter Food Safety blueprint, it’s clear to see that the industry at large is heading towards a new digital age. Food manufacturers shouldn’t wait to take the first steps, and cloud-based quality can get them on the right path.

While any big change comes with hesitancy, a tactical approach can help ease any fears. Some food manufacturers have started with small-scale projects, deploying cloud-based quality solution to monitor a single process or production line. Leadership teams and employees alike can see how quality in the cloud benefits everyone at all levels of their organization—and then deploy the solution on a wider scale. It is a great way to successfully introduce new digital technology and lay the foundation for future transformation.

Food Lab

Four Testing and Detection Trends for 2022

By Wilfredo Dominguez Nunez, Ph.D.
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Food Lab

COVID-19 continues to pose challenges for every industry, influencing how they will need to adapt to the future. The food manufacturing industry specifically is continuing to see problems with plants shutting down due to outbreaks, labor shortages and domino-effect supply chain issues, forcing them to adjust in order to continue meeting the demands of customers and supplying safe food to the public.

With these adjustments in mind, changes in testing and detection in labs have arisen, influencing four main trends within food manufacturing labs expected throughout 2022.

1. Testing levels continue to increase. In 2021, some customers intentionally planned to cut testing and production in plants to balance out the loss of employees due to the pandemic-induced labor shortages within manufacturing roles.

However, following the trends of rising employment in manufacturing, 2022 should see an increase in testing, raising the baseline of production levels in the plants. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, manufacturing jobs saw an increase of more than 113,000 employees in Q4 of 2021. Although still below employment levels of February 2020, the continued increase is positive news for the food manufacturing industry.

2. Food testing labs turn to automation technology. Even as labs begin to see their numbers in employees rise, the demand for automation technology during 2022 will continue to climb given its proven ability to increase productivity in the lab and meet the demands of customers. With automation technology, lab technicians can multi-task thanks to the ability to step away from tests, increasing the amount of testing that can be done despite the lack of people in labs.

Additionally, utilizing ready-to-use products has cut down on the time it takes to prepare for testing. Rather than spending hours preparing Petri dishes and using an autoclave, ready-to-use Petri films or Petri dishes create easy to follow protocols with significantly less steps for a lab technician to complete.

3. Third-party labs gain popularity. With food manufacturing, tests will either be conducted on-site or at a third-party lab. Taking labor shortages into account, many manufacturers still do not have the staff numbers to maintain a dedicated on-site testing facility. As a result, manufacturers will turn to third-party labs to help increase testing volumes and productivity.

Not only have third-party labs aided manufacturers with testing, but the labs also often have the capabilities to run confirmation tests on products, tests that may not have been possible if conducted on-site. And as third-party labs have seen numerous consolidations in recent years, their capability to move products around for necessary testing is much more simplified and achievable than if testing was conducted on-site.

4. Shifting to locally sourced products. With supply chain issues continuing into 2022, the food manufacturing industry could source more products from local farmers and other local product suppliers in order to better keep up with demand.

Right now, it is much harder to receive and send products across the globe with countries and states enforcing COVID-19 restrictions and dealing with their own labor issues. Not only are labs looking to rely on locally sourced products to assist in getting products to their final destination, but consumers are also increasing their demand for locally sourced products. Specifically, consumers are looking for the reliability of food on the shelves, shorter time spent between farmer and grocery stores, as well as simply fewer people touching product throughout the chain.

Challenges in food testing labs that arose in the past couple of years are still prevalent in 2022, but from adversity comes innovation and change. With more attention on automation technology, more food manufacturing employees returning to work, and adjustments to ongoing supply chain issues, 2022 is looking more hopeful in working to return to the level of productivity food manufacturers were meeting prior to the pandemic.

Cybersecurity

As Cyber Threats Evolve, Can Food Companies Keep Up?

By Maria Fontanazza
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Cybersecurity

The recent cyberattack that shut down meat supplier JBS should be a wakeup call to the food industry. These attacks are on the rise across industries, and food operations both large and small need to be prepared. In a Q&A with Food Safety Tech, Brent Johnson, partner at Holland & Hart, breaks down key areas of vulnerability and how companies in the food industry can take proactive steps to protect their operations and ultimately, the consumer.

Food Safety Tech: Given the recent cyberattack on JBS, how vulnerable are U.S. food companies, in general, to this type of attack? How prepared are companies right now?

Brent Johnson, Holland & Hart
Brent Johnson, partner, Holland & Hart

Brent Johnson: Food companies are in the same boat as other manufacturers. Cyber threats are constantly evolving and hackers are developing increasingly sophisticated delivery systems for ransomware. Food companies are obviously focused on making and delivering safe and compliant products and getting paid for them. Cybersecurity is important, but it’s difficult for manufacturers to devote the resources necessary to make their systems bulletproof when it’s an ancillary part of their overall operations and a cost driver. Unfortunately, hackers only have one job.

We tend to think of big tech and financial services companies as the prime targets for ransomware attacks because of the critical nature of their technology and data, but food companies are really no different. Plus, unlike tech companies and the financial services industry, food companies haven’t, as a general matter, developed the robust defenses necessary to thwart attacks, so they’re easier targets.

Food Safety Tech: What is the overall impact of a cyberattack on a food company, from both a business as well as a consumer safety perspective?

Johnson: It may come as a bit of a surprise to those who don’t work in the food industry, but food production (from slaughterhouses to finished products) is highly automated and data driven. That’s one of the lessons of the JBS ransomware attack. The attack shut down meat processing facilities across the United States and elsewhere. I work in Utah and the JBS Beef Plant in Hyrum was temporarily shut down. JBS cancelled two shifts at its meatpacking operation in Greeley, Colorado where my firm has a large presence as well, because of the ransomware attack. So, the impact on a food company’s business from a successful ransomware attack is dramatic.

On the consumer safety side, a ransomware attack that impacts automated safety systems would cause significant problems for a food manufacturer. Software controls much of the food industry’s safety systems—from sanitation (equipment washdowns and predictive maintenance) to traceability (possible pathogen contamination and recalls) to ingredient monitoring (including allergen detection). Every part of a food company’s production system is traced, tracked, and verified electronically. A ransomware attack on a food maker would very likely compromise the company’s ability to produce safe products.

Food Safety Tech: What proactive steps should food companies be taking to protect themselves against a cyberattack?

Johnson: I wish there was an easy and foolproof system for food companies to implement to protect against cyber attacks, but there isn’t. The threats are always changing. The Biden Administration’s recent memorandum to corporate executives and business leaders on strengthening cyber defenses is a good starting point, however. The White House’s Deputy National Security Adviser for Cyber and Emerging Tech, Anne Neuberger, reiterated the following “Five Best Practices” from President Biden’s executive order. These practices are multifactor authentication, endpoint detection and response, aggressive monitoring for malicious activities on the company’s networks and blocking them, data encryption, and the creation of a skilled cyber security team with the ability to train employees, detect threats and patch system vulnerabilities.

Food Safety Tech: Are there specific companies within the food industry that are especially susceptible?

Johnson: Not really. Hackers are opportunistic and look for the paths of least resistance. That said, as can be seen from the recent Colonial Pipeline and JBS ransomware attacks, hackers have transitioned from the early days of going after individuals and small businesses to whale hunting. The money is better.

It’s important to observe that the recent attacks have been directed at industries that present national infrastructure concerns (oil, the food supply). There’s no evidence of any involvement by a foreign government in these attacks, but it’s a fair question as to whether the hackers, themselves, expect that the federal government will step in at some point to assist the victims of cyber attacks financially due to their critical importance.

Food Safety Tech: Where do you see the issue of cybersecurity and cyberattacks related to the food industry headed in the future?

Johnson: Other than the certainty that the attacks will increase in both intensity and sophistication, I have no prediction. It’s not a time for complacency.

Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine
FST Soapbox

How Food Processors Can Use Robots to Improve Food Quality

By Emily Newton
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Emily Newton, Revolutionized Magazine

Across industries, new innovations in robotics technologies are helping to speed up day-to-day work and improve product quality. Robots can be especially effective for businesses in the food processing industry, where a growing labor shortage poses trouble for processors.

While a number of critical industry tasks were difficult to fully or partially automate in the past, new robotics technology is helping to increase the number of potential applications for robots in the industry.

Consistency, Accuracy, and Speed

Food processing robots offer a few major advantages over conventional food processing workflows. Robots can perform a task repeatedly over the course of a work day or shift, typically with minimal deviation in precision. Unlike human workers, robots don’t get tired, and their pace of work tends to stay consistent. This combination of accuracy and speed has been found to increase site throughput while ensuring packaged products are up to company standards.

Food processors that adopt robots also see major gains in item consistency—more often, packaged products contain the same amount of food, weigh the same, and are packaged in the same manner.

Automated packaging systems can sometimes be a poor fit for certain food commodities, especially for products like delicate fruits and vegetables.

Experimentation, however, often leads to custom solutions that can handle these unique challenges. After experimentation with new weighing and packaging robots in the cannabis industry, for example, processors were able to accelerate the packaging process and create more consistently packaged items.

In the food processing industry, this can come in the form of robots with soft silicon grippers and attachments, which help companies package delicate products.

Workers production line
Workers in a factory sorting food by hand, could be assisted by new robot technology. (Unsplash image)

Preventing Cross Contamination

Despite improved food safety standards, foodborne disease outbreaks remain common in the United States.

The use of robots can help control cross-contamination in food processing plants.

With any human labor force comes the risk of cross-contamination. Workers assigned to packaging foods can easily transport pathogens from product to product or from one area of the facility to another. This is especially true in sites that process raw meat products. Even when following proper site hygiene practices, it’s possible for workers to unintentionally transport pathogens and other contaminants from one workcell to another.

Because work in food processing facilities is often shoulder-to-shoulder, it’s also easy for contaminants to spread from one worker to another once a particular cell has been contaminated.

Robots that are fixed in place and handle all the aspects of a particular packaging job can help localize potential contamination, making it easier for processors to minimize cross-contamination and keep food safe.

Robots can still contribute to cross contamination if not properly cleaned, but an additional set of robots could solve this problem, too. For example, one a provider of robots for the food processing industry has developed a set of robots capable of washing down an entire workcell.

These robots, working in pairs, activate at the end of each operating cycle and use high-powered jets of water to wash down the workcell, the packaging robots used there, and themselves.

Collaborative Robotics (Cobots)

One major recent innovation in robots has a new focus on tech that is collaborative.

These new robots, unlike conventional robotics, aren’t always built to fully automate a particular task. Instead, they are built to interact and work collaboratively alongside humans where necessary.

Artificial intelligence-based machine vision technology helps them navigate factory floors safely or assist in tasks like assembly and machine tending. Safety features like force limiters and padded joints help prevent injuries that can occur while working in close proximity to conventional robots.

These features also enable them to work in tight spaces without the use of safety cages that conventional robots sometimes require. In factories and food processing plants, they can provide assistance and speed up existing workflows.

For example, an article in Asia Pacific Food Industry cites one case study from a Swedish food processor, Orkla Foods. The company integrated cobots into a production line packaging vanilla cream, freeing up the human workers who had been responsible for the task. Before the cobots were introduced, workers had to bag and manually pack the vanilla cream into cartons.

Even with cobots, human workers are still necessary for tasks that require judgment, creativity, and problem-solving skills. Cobots can take over tasks that don’t lend themselves well to automation. These tasks tend to be tedious, dull, or even dangerous due to the repetitive motions workers need to make.

Even if a task can’t be fully automated, cobots can still help improve efficiency and boost accuracy. These robots provide the most significant benefits for businesses that need flexibility and agility in production.

Cobots are often lightweight and easy to reprogram on-the-fly, allowing workers to quickly move them from task to task as needed. In many cases, an entire fleet of cobots can be repositioned and reprogrammed in half a day, allowing a business to reconfigure its robots to handle entirely new tasks without additional capital investment.

This flexibility can also make cobots a better fit for personalized products than other systems. As product specifications change, a cobot can be easily programmed and reprogrammed to handle the differences.

The use of these robots can also help prevent cross contamination, like more conventional robotics.

Sector-Specific Applications

A handful of sectors within the food processing industry can also benefit from niche robotics designed to automate certain specific tasks.

Danish robotics manufacturer Varo, for example, developed a line of cake decorating and filling robots. These robots are designed with technology that allows them to determine which cake will be decorated next, minimizing the amount of human involvement needed to operate.

While these robots won’t be useful for every manufacturer, they are a good example of how many sectors within the industry stand to benefit from robots that can automate niche tasks.
Using Food Processing Robots to Improve Product Quality and Consistency
Robots help automate tasks that are dull, dirty or dangerous. In doing so, they typically provide businesses with significant upgrades to process accuracy, speed, and consistency.

New technology—like machine vision and collaborative robotics technology—is helping to expand the use cases of robots in the food processing industry. These robots can often improve product quality more effectively than process changes alone, and may help manage a labor gap that could persist well into the future.

James Quill, Corvium
FST Soapbox

Digital Transformation of EMP: Best Practices and Outcomes for Food Manufacturers

By James Quill, Tara Wilson
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James Quill, Corvium

In today’s digital-first world, it might be surprising for those outside of the food manufacturing industry to learn that paper and pen are still considered state-of-the-art documentation tools. Answering food safety and quality questions such as: “What was the underlying cause of this customer complaint?” or “What caused the production halt this morning?” still require hours of research across paper documents, emails and spreadsheets. Maybe even the odd phone call or text message.

The good news is that many food safety and quality problems can be solved by leveraging modern-day technology. The challenge is taking that first step. By applying the following best practices, organizations can take small steps that lead to substantial benefits, including optimized food safety and quality programs, happier employees and safer operations.

Digital Transformation Best Practices

What if all the information food safety professionals require could be accessible through one unified interface and could proactively point to actions that should be taken? It can, with the right mindset and the right strategy.

While there is no “flip of a switch” to become digitally empowered, best practices exist for where to start. And, early adopters are injecting innovation into food safety programs with simple, but powerful technology.

Look Inward

Too often, food safety professionals push forward on a path to digital transformation by evaluating software and business applications against features and/or cost. But before taking this approach, it is important to look at existing food safety programs, identify where incremental improvements can be made and determine the potential return on a new technology investment.

Self-awareness is a beneficial leadership skill, but it’s also the key driver in understanding an organization’s business needs for food safety. Food safety professionals need to get real about common pain points, such as inconsistent or insufficient data, non-standardized practices, and delayed reporting. This is not the time to gloss over problems with processes or tools. Only by clearly documenting the challenges upfront will organizations be able to find the best solutions.

As one example, a common pain point is managing different formats and timing of reporting across facilities. See if this sounds familiar: “Well, Dallas sends an Excel spreadsheet every week, but Toledo only sends it on a monthly basis, while Wichita sends it monthly most of the time, but it’s never in the same format.”

Start out by identifying similar problems to help define the business objective, which will help determine how technology can be most effectively applied.

Eat, Sleep, Food Safety, Repeat

Food safety processes should constantly evolve to enable continued improvements in food safety outcomes. With that in mind, it’s helpful to dust off the corporate SOP and review it, especially if an organization is moving to a digital program. A common mistake many food manufacturers make is asking technology providers to configure an application based solely off the corporate protocol, only to discover at go-live that users don’t follow that protocol.

To avoid this situation, consider the following questions:

  • Why are food safety professionals not completing processes by the book?
  • Is that similar with every site?
  • Why has it been that way for so long?
  • Why did food safety professionals start to stray?

By locking down processes and identifying the desired way forward, leaders can configure a new application with the latest information and updated decisions. At a minimum, this step will help identify current issues that should be addressed, which can become measurable goals for the use of the new technology, ideally emphasizing the most pressing problems.

Less is More

Digital transformation doesn’t always need to become a “fix-all” project. Instead, it may revolve around a single operational initiative or business decision. For example, food safety professionals often maintain a spreadsheet with usernames and passwords for countless applications, some of which overlap in functionality and/or require a separate login for each facility. This is not only a safety concern, it’s an easy entry point when moving to a digital approach.

Consolidation of applications is a natural step from the standpoint of feasibility and fiscal responsibility. So, look for digital transformation opportunities that result in fewer applications and more consolidation.

Don’t Rush It

While digital transformation is inevitable, Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither should be an organization’s digital strategy. Unfortunately, the decision to go digital is often made, and a go-live date chosen, before determining what transformation requires, which is a clear-cut recipe for failure.

Technical vendors should play a key role in developing an effective implementation strategy, including sharing onboarding, planning, configuration and go-live best practices.

While technology is here to help the world become smarter about food safety, it is not here to replace human experience. Food safety leaders should continue to augment processes through supplemental technologies, rather than view technology as a full takeover of current approaches.

Barriers to entry for digital transformation are being lowered, as the ease of adoption of the underlying technologies continues to advance and access via cloud-based applications improves.

What to Do With All This Data? 5 Outcomes Food Manufacturers Can Achieve

Food manufacturers have benefited from digitally transforming environmental monitoring programs (EMPs) using workflow and analytics tools in a variety of ways. In the end, what matters is that the resulting data access and usability enables new insights and accelerates decisions that result in reduced risk and improved quality. Keep in mind these key outcomes that food manufacturers can achieve from digital transformation.

Outcome #1: Formalized Audit & Compliance Readiness

Enhancing an internal audit framework with digital tools will greatly reduce the burden of ensuring compliance for schemes such as BRC, SQF and FSSC food safety standards. Flexible report formats and filtering capabilities empower users with the right information at the right time.

Imagine, no more sifting manually through binders of CoA’s and test records to find a needle in a haystack. Exposing teams to a digital means of performing internal audits will not only boost confidence to handle requests from an auditor but will also help drive continuous improvement by providing easier access to insights about the effectiveness of internal policies. At the same time, digital tools will help ensure that only the required information is shared, reducing confusion and uncertainty as well as audit time and cost.

Outcome #2: Proactive Alerting and Automated Reporting

Threshold-based report alerts are an excellent way to reduce the noise often associated with notification systems. Providing quality and safety managers with automated alerts of scheduled maintenance or pending test counts can help them focus on activities that need attention, without distractions.

The benefit of threshold-based reporting is that it is a “set it and forget it” method. While regular “Monday Reports” are still a necessity, alerts and reports can be generated only when attention is needed for anomalies. A great example of this is being able to set proactive alerts for test counts in a facility that are approaching nonconformance levels. Understanding the corrective action requirements needed to control an environmental issue before it impacts quality, production and unplanned sanitation measures is a critical component of risk management and brand protection. In addition, reports can be automatically generated and delivered on a regular schedule to help meet reporting needs without spending time collecting data.

In other words—imagine a world where data comes and finds users when needed, rather than having to search for it in a binder or spreadsheet. Digital tools can provide email reports showing that a threshold has (or has not) been met and link the user directly to the information needed to take action. This is called “actionable information” and is something to consider when deploying technology within an organization’s food safety program processes.

Outcome #3: Optimize Performance with Tracking, Trending and Drilling

The Pareto Principle specifies that for many outcomes, about 80% of consequences come from 20% of causes. Historical data that is digitized can be used to quickly identify the root cause of top failures in a facility in order to drive process improvements. Knowing where to invest money will help avoid the cost of failure and aid in the prevention of a recall situation.

Dashboards are a powerful tool that organizations can use to understand the risk level across facilities to make better, data-driven decisions. Reports can be configured through a thoughtful dashboard setup that enables users to easily identify hot spots and trends, drill down to specific test locations, and enable clear communication to stakeholders. Figure 1 provides an example of a heat map that can be used to speed response and take corrective actions when needed.

Pathogen Positives
Figure 1. Pathogen Positives by Zone and Location Heat

Outcome #4: Simplified Data Governance and Interoperability

Smarter food safety will drive standardization of data formats, which allows information to flow seamlessly between internal and external systems. One of the major benefits of shifting away from paper-based solutions is the ability to be proactive to reduce risk and cost. FSQA managers, within and across facilities, can benefit from a 360-degree operational view that reveals hidden connections between information silos that exist in the plant and across the organization. This includes:

  • Product tracing through product testing to environment monitoring and sanitation efforts
  • Tracing back a product quality issue reported from a customer to the sanitation efforts
  • Understanding why compliance is on track but quality results aren’t correcting

Outcome #5: Reduce the Cost of High Turnover

Successful GMPs, SSOPs and a HACCP program require leaders that continually ensure that employees are properly trained, which can be difficult with high turnover rates. To address this challenge, digital tools can aid in providing easily accessible documentation to empower users and reduce the cost, time and risk associated with having to re-train new employees on the EMP process. While training cannot be replaced with technology, it can be accelerated.

For example, testing locations within facilities can be documented with images and related information enabling new employees to visually see the floorplan and relevant testing protocols with accompanying video and click-through visualization of underlying data. Additionally, corrective action protocols can be enhanced with videos and standardized form inputs to ensure proper data is being collected at all times.

The Path Ahead

As the digital transformation of the food safety industry continues, food manufacturers should seek out and apply proven best practices to make the process as efficient and effective for their organization as possible. By avoiding common pitfalls, companies can achieve transformation objectives and realize substantial benefits from more easily accessible and actionable food safety data.

James Gunn-Wilkerson, CMX
Retail Food Safety Forum

The Future Is Now: AI Takes Journey from Supply Chain to Today’s Restaurant Kitchens

By James Gunn-Wilkerson
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James Gunn-Wilkerson, CMX

Futurist Ross Dawson has said that AI and automation will shape the future of work, and it also promises to transform our lives beyond the office. According to the World Economic Forum, when AI, which provides the ability to “enable devices to learn, reason and process information like humans,” is combined with Internet of Things (IoT) devices and systems, it creates AIoT. This super duo has the potential to power smart homes, smart cities, smart industries and even our smartwatches and fitness trackers, a market estimated by Gartner to be worth $87 billion by 2023. More importantly, this “interconnectedness” will change the way we interact with our devices as well as the way we will live and work in the future.

In the restaurant industry, we’re already seeing glimpses of this interconnectedness take shape, and in the past year, we’ve experienced major technological advancements that have transformed every facet of the way food establishments work. Reflecting on those advancements, I want to take a moment to share three areas of AI impact that are bubbling up in the restaurant sector in 2021.

1: AI-powered Intelligent Kitchens

From ghost kitchens to traditional kitchens, the “back of the house” continues to be a prime target for AI and automation. While great progress has been made, in many ways it seems like we’ve only scratched the surface when it comes to how far AI can take today’s restaurants. But every now and then, we hear examples of AI powering the future of our industry. For example, Nala Robotics, Inc. will be opening what it calls “the world’s first state-of-the-art intelligent restaurant” in Naperville, Illinois this year. The company says the AI-based robotic kitchen “can create dishes from any cuisine around the world, using authentic recipes from celebrated chefs”. A press release from Nala Robotics states that its flagship restaurant is taking “the first step in the food service industry with AI-powered service, addressing many of the issues affecting restaurant owners during COVID-19,” and it will “provide consumers an endless variety of cuisine without potential contamination from human contact.” This is the new frontier in intelligent kitchens, and it couldn’t have come at a better time, with the pandemic forcing restaurants to reimagine the way they do business.

2: AI-Driven Labor Shifts.

You can’t talk about AI in the restaurant industry without also having a conversation about the implications for the modern workforce. With AI in restaurant kitchens and beyond, the impact on the labor force is undeniable. By 2024, Gartner predicts “that these technologies will replace almost 69% of the manager’s workload.” But that’s not entirely a bad thing. Instead of manually filling out forms and updating records, managers can turn to AI to automate these and other tedious tasks. “By using AI…they can spend less time managing transactions and can invest more time on learning, performance management and goal setting,” Gartner adds.Managers can also use the extra time to focus more effort on the customer and employee experience. And indeed they should: In a recent Deloitte report, 60% of guests surveyed indicated that a positive experience would influence them to dine at a restaurant more frequently.

Looking at the impact of AI on labor at all levels, from the CEO to the entry-level wage earner, the shift, at its best, will be a transition to more meaningful—and less mundane—work. The evolution of humanity has taken us to the point we’re now at now, with food production and delivery processes becoming increasingly automated. This has been an evolution generations in the making. In an ideal world, everyone at every level of the organization should benefit from this new wave of technology. For example, automation can and should be used to open the door to new training and new opportunities for low-wage earners to learn new skills that elevate career paths, increase income and improve quality of life.

3: AI and Global Supply Chain Transformation

From the farm all the way to the table, AI is now poised to transform the global supply chain. From my perspective, the biggest impact will be around driving sustainability efforts. Restaurant and grocery brands are already beginning to leverage AI to forecast their food supply needs based on customer demand, leading to less over-ordering and less food waste to support sustainability initiatives. One company in this space, FourKites, is creating what it calls “the digital supply chain of the future.” Using real-time visibility and machine learning, FourKites powers and optimizes global supply chains, making them “automated, interconnected and collaborative—spanning transportation, warehouses, stores, trucks and more.”

In addition to predictive planning, more and more brands will start to use AI to create incident risk management models to identify trends and risks in the supply chain to determine whether bad or recalled products are originating from a specific supplier, distributor, or due to an environmental variable.With all of these changes, the need for comprehensive data standards will multiply as suppliers and distributors around the world work together to bring us produce and packaged food from all corners of the globe. Data standards will be critical to traceability and the exchange of critical tracking events and key data elements, and advances in data standards will power the meta-data needed to provide better insight for food quality and regulatory compliance, crisis management, and recalls—at scale.

Research firm Forrester states that, in the end, the greatest impact resulting from an investment in robotics and other technologies that automate operational tasks is improved customer experience (CX). “Most companies believe that investment in AI, automation, and robotics for engagement will decrease operational costs. While this is true, our research shows that the revenue upside from delivering better CX could deliver a greater impact on the bottom line over time,” Forrester states.

As a business engaged in digitizing and transforming supply chain operations, our team couldn’t agree with Forrester more. But we believe it will take striking the right balance between technology and the human touch to not only drive stronger CX, but to also create a world in which AI is implemented for the greater good—a world in which people, processes, business and technology all win.

Dollar

Quantifying the ROI of Environmental Monitoring Program Automation

By Joseph Heinzelmann
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Dollar

The COVID-19 pandemic heightened the urgency for food brands to adopt technology solutions that support remote management of environmental monitoring programs (EMPs) as they strive to provide safe products to customers. While digital transformation has progressed within the food safety industry, food and beverage manufacturers often have lower profitability as compared to other manufacturing industries, such as pharmaceutical and high-tech equipment, which can lead to smaller IT spend.1 Many companies still rely on manual processes for environmental monitoring and reporting, which are prone to error, fail to provide organizations with visibility into all of their facilities and limit the ability to quickly take corrective actions.

Despite growing recognition of the value of automating testing, diagnostics, corrective actions and analytic workflows to prevent contamination issues in food production environments, barriers to adoption persist. One key obstacle is the recurring mindset that food safety is a necessary compliance cost. Instead, we need to recognize that EMP workflow automation can create real business value. While the downside of food safety issues is easy to quantify, organizations still struggle to understand the upside, such as positive contributions to productivity and a stronger bottom-line achieved by automating certain food safety processes.

To understand how organizations are using workflow automation and analytics to drive quantifiable business ROI, a two-year study that included interviews and anonymized data collection with food safety, operations, and executive leadership at 34 food organizations was conducted.

The respondents represent more than 120 facilities using advanced EMP workflow automation and analytics. Based on the interviews and the shared experience of food organization leaders, two key examples emerged that demonstrate the ROI of EMP automation.

Improved Production Performance

According to those interviewed, one of the primary benefits of EMP automation (and driver of ROI) is minimizing production disruptions. A temporary conveyor shutdown, unplanned cleaning, or extensive investigatory testing can add up to an astounding 500 hours annually at a multi-facility organization, and cost on average $20,000 to $30,000 per hour.2 So, it’s obvious that eliminating costly disruptions and downtime has a direct impact on ROI from this perspective.

But organizations with systems where information collected through the EMP is highly accessible have another advantage. They are able to take corrective actions to reduce production impacts very quickly. In some cases, even before a disruption happens.
By automatically feeding EMP data into an analytics program, organizations can rapidly detect the root cause of issues and implement corrective actions BEFORE issues cause production delays or shutdowns.

In one example, over the course of several months, a large dairy company with manual EMP processes automated its food safety workflows, improved efficiencies, reduced pathogen positives and improved its bottom line. At the start of the study, the company increased systematic pathogen testing schedules to identify where issues existed and understand the effectiveness of current sanitation efforts. With improved access to data on testing, test types and correlated sanitation procedures, the company was able to implement a revamped remediation program with more effective corrective action steps.

Ultimately, the automated workflows and analytics led to reduced positive results and more efficient EMP operations for the company as compared to the “crisis-mode” approach of the past. The associated costs of waste, rework, delayed production starts, and downtime caused by food safety issues were significantly reduced as illustrated in Figure 1.

EMP automation
Figure 1: Reduction of food safety testing costs through EMP automation. Customer Study 2016-2018. All figures courtesy of Corvium, Inc.

Quantifying the ROI of Production Performance Improvements

The financial impact of reducing production downtime by just 90 minutes per week can be dramatic when looked at by cumulative results over multiple weeks. In fact, eliminating just a few delayed starts or unplanned re-cleaning can have significant financial gains.

Figure 2 shows the business impact of gaining 90 minutes of production up-time per week by automating food safety operations. For the purposes of this analysis, the “sample organization” depicted operates two facilities where there are assumptions that down-time equates to a cost value of $30,000 per hour, and that both plants experience an average of 90 minutes of downtime per week that can be re-gained.

Production Performance Improvement ROI Calculation
Figure 2: Sample Production Performance Improvement ROI Calculation.

Reduced Food Waste

The second key insight uncovered in the two-year study was the impact that automating the EMP process had on waste. An estimated 30–40% of all food produced in the United States is wasted, and preventable food safety and quality issues account for a substantial portion of this waste.3

A key challenge shared by study participants was detecting food safety issues early enough to avoid wasting an entire production run. Clearly, the later in a processing or manufacturing run that issues are discovered, the greater the potential waste. To limit this, organizations needed near real-time visibility into relevant food safety and EMP data.

By automating EMP workflows, they solved this issue and created value. By tracking and analyzing data in near real time, production teams were able to keep up with ever-moving production schedules. They could define rules to trigger the system to automatically analyze diagnostic results data and alert stakeholders to outliers. Impacted food product could be quickly identified and quarantined when needed before an entire production run was wasted.

Companies included in the study realized substantial benefits from the increased efficiencies in their testing program. According to a food safety quality assurance manager at a large U.S. protein manufacturer, “Our environmental monitoring program has reached new heights in terms of accuracy, communication, visibility and efficiency. Manual, time-intensive tasks have been automated and optimized, such as the ability to search individual sample or submittal IDs, locate them quickly and make any necessary changes.”

Quantifying the ROI of Food Waste Reductions

Figure 3 shows how measuring the business impact of gaining back just 10% of scrapped food per week. For the purposes of this analysis, the “sample organization” depicted operates two facilities where there are 500 lbs. of finished product scrapped each week, and the value per pound of finished product is valued at a cost of $1 per pound.

Sample Waste Reduction ROI Calculation
Figure 3. Sample Waste Reduction ROI Calculation.

Conclusion

Automating EMP workflows decreases the time required to receive and analyze critical EMP data, helping food manufacturers achieve significant improvements in production performance, waste reduction and overall testing efficiency. By using these same ROI calculations, food brands can better illustrate how improved food safety processes can build value, and help leaders see food safety as a brand imperative rather than a cost center. As food organizations progress through each stage of digital transformation, studies like this can show real-world examples of business challenges and how other organizations uncovered value in adoption of new technologies and tools.

References

  1. CSIMarket, Inc. (2021). Total Market Profitability.
  2. Senkbeil, T. (2014). Built to Last: Maintaining Reliability and Uptime of Critical Connected Systems in Industrial Settings. Anixter.
  3. USDA. Food Waste FAQs.
Nicole Lang, igus
Retail Food Safety Forum

Robots Serve Up Safety in Restaurants

By Nicole Lang
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Nicole Lang, igus

Perhaps the top takeaway from the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic is that people the world over realize how easily viruses can spread. Even with social distancing, masks and zealous, frequent handwashing, everyone has learned contagions can cycle through the atmosphere and put a person at risk of serious, and sometimes deadly, health complications. In reality, there are no safe spaces when proper protocols are not followed.

The primary culprit in transmission of norovirus, according to the CDC, is contaminated food. “The virus can easily contaminate food because it is very tiny and spreads easily,” the CDC says in a fact sheet for food workers posted on its website. “It only takes a very small amount of virus to make someone sick.”

The CDC numbers are alarming. The agency reports about 20 million people get sick from norovirus each year, most from close contact with infected people or by eating contaminated food. Norovirus is the leading cause of disease outbreaks from contaminated food in the United States, and infected food workers cause about 70% of reported norovirus outbreaks from contaminated food.

The solution to reducing the transmission of unhealthy particles could be starting to take shape through automation. While robots have been used for the past few years in food manufacturing and processing, new solutions take food handling to a new level. Robots are no longer in the back of the house in the food industry, isolated in packaging and manufacturing plants. They are now front and center. The next time you see a salad prepared for you at a favorite haunt, you may be watching a robot.

“The global pandemic has altered the way that we eat,” said Justin Rooney, of Dexai Robotics, a company that developed a food service robotic device. Reducing human contact with food via hands-free ordering and autonomous food serving capabilities has the potential to reduce the spread of pathogens and viruses, and could help keep food fresh for a longer period of time.

Painful Pandemic

Increased use of automation in the foodservice industry might be one of the salvations of the COVID-19 pandemic. In an industry searching for good news, that might be the silver lining in an otherwise gloomful crisis.

Job losses in the restaurant industry have been brutal. By the end of November, nearly 110,000 restaurants in the United States had closed. A report by the National Restaurant Association said restaurants lost three times more jobs than any other industry since the beginning of the pandemic. In December, reports said nearly 17% of U.S. restaurants had closed. Some restaurants clung to life by offering outdoor dining, but as winter set in, that option evaporated. Some governors even demanded restaurant closures as the pandemic escalated in late fall.

Restaurants have faced a chronic labor shortage for years. Despite layoffs during the pandemic, many former foodservice employees are electing to leave the industry.

Teenagers, for instance, and some older workers are staying away for health and safety reasons. Some former workers are also finding out that they can make more money on unemployment benefits than by returning to work. Restaurant chains have hiked wages, but filling positions still remains a challenge.

Automated Solutions

Restaurants began dancing with the idea of robots nearly 50 years ago. The trend started slowly, with customers ordering food directly through kiosks. As of 2011, McDonald’s installed nearly 7,000 touchscreen kiosks to handle cashiering responsibilities at restaurants throughout Europe.

As technology has advanced, so has the presence of robots in restaurants. In 2019 Seattle-based Picnic unveiled a robot that can prepare 300 pizzas in an hour. In January, Nala Robotics announced it would open the world’s first “intelligent” restaurant. The robotic kitchen can create dishes from any cuisine in the world. The kitchen, which is expected to open in April in Naperville, Illinois, will have the capability to create an endless variety of cuisine without potential contamination from human contact.

Dexai designed a new robotic unit that allows for hands-free ordering that can be placed through any device with an Internet connection. The robot also includes a new subsystem for utensils, which are stored in a food bin to keep them temperature controlled. This ensures that robot is compliant with ServSafe regulations. The company is working on improving robot system’s reliability, robustness, safety and user friendliness. The robot has two areas to hold tools, a kitchen display system, bowl passing arm, an enclosure for electronics and two refrigeration units. It has the unique ability to swap utensils to comply with food service standards and prevent contamination as a result of allergens, for example.

Why Automation

Many industries have been impacted by advancements in automation, and the foodservice industry is no different. While initially expensive, the benefits over time can provide to be worth the investment.

One of the most significant advantages, particularly important in the post-COVID era, is better quality control. Automated units can detect issues much earlier in the supply chain, and address those issues.

Automation can also help improve worker safety by executing some of the more repetitive and dangerous tasks. Robots can also boost efficiency (i.e., a robot used for making pizza that can press out dough five times faster than humans and place them into ovens) and eliminate the risk of injury. Robots are also being used to make coffee, manage orders and billing, and prepare the food. Robots can also collect data that will help foodservice owners regarding output, quantity, speed and other factors.

“Alfred’s actions are powered by artificial intelligence,” according to Rooney. “Each time Alfred performs an action, the associated data gets fed into a machine learning model. Consequently, each individual Alfred learns from the accumulated success and failures of every other Alfred that has existed.” Dexai plans to teach the robot to operate other commonly found pieces of kitchen equipment such as grills, fryers, espresso machines, ice cream cabinets and smoothie makers.

Unrelenting Trend

Automated solutions might have come along too late to save many restaurants, but the path forward is clear. While they are not yet everywhere, robots are now in play at significant number of restaurants, and there is no turning back. Any way you slice it, robots in restaurants, clearly, is an idea whose time has come.