Tag Archives: robots

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.

Megan Nichols
FST Soapbox

Four Influential Technologies Changing Food Manufacturing

By Megan Ray Nichols
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Megan Nichols

Some impressive technologies are not only impacting the food industry right now but will also have a huge impact in the future. As their use grows to be more prevalent, the industry will change to be smarter and more efficient, with continued improvements across the board.

1. AI and Advanced Robotics

While artificial intelligence and advanced robotics are two distinct technologies, they are frequently paired together. AI, and the data it digests, is used to command robots, allowing them to be more precise, more intelligent and more aware.

Most robots on their own are capable of completing only repetitive and clearly defined tasks. Throw something unique into the mix and they’ll either fumble or fail. However, when governed by data-based intelligence solutions like AI or machine learning, those robots become something incredibly advanced.

In the food industry, machinery and robots are leveraged to improve operations, further maintaining quality and efficiency, at affordable costs. They often work alongside human laborers to augment or enhance processes. They come with several unexpected benefits as well, such as much-improved safety for workers, faster and higher product output and consistent, reliable quality.

For example, JBS, one of the world’s largest meatpacking firms, deployed robotic butchers within its plants. The robots were used to slice more challenging meats, which reduced workplace injuries.

2. Automation

Automation stands alongside AI and advanced robotics, even incorporating those technologies to create a streamlined system. As of 2017, 73% of surveyed companies in the food and beverage manufacturing industry either had or were in the process of establishing automation within their facilities.

Many systems are designed to replace or enhance repetitive tasks, boosting their speed and accuracy, to significantly improve output, without incurring a loss in quality. It’s not just about hardware, like swapping a human laborer for a robot. It’s also achieved through software. Think supply chain management solutions that help plan for various events and experiences without human input.

When many of these technologies are used side-by-side, it strengthens their application and usability. As is true of advanced robotics, for example, AI can also be used to create more intelligent automation platforms. Instead of carrying out rote or simple tasks, they can be programmed to react and engage through any number of parameters. The system might slow production, for instance, based on a decrease in product demand. Or, it might swap to an alternate component or ingredient because of a shortage somewhere.

With the right controls and support, automation technologies are game-changing. With the global population growing and demands increasing more with each year, food manufacturers will look to streamline their operations and boost output in any way possible, and automation will be a go-to.

3. Digital Twins

Digital twins in food manufacturing are essentially simulated copies or a virtual representation of a physical system. That definition might seem confusing, but think of it as a clone that can be manipulated for testing and analytics.In other words, it is a twin of the actual system and information, in every sense of the word, albeit one that is more versatile and less vulnerable. It allows manufacturers and distributors to run simulations by feeding specific information into the system to identify patterns, recognize outcomes and much more.

As the systems and controls supporting the field become smarter and more digitized, digital twins in food manufacturing will find their way into product development, testing, post-production, distribution and nearly every other facet of the industry. It will become an integral component to not only understand what’s happening in the market but also for keeping up with the ebb and flow of supply and demand.

4. Blockchain

Even well before the pandemic, people had become much more conscious about the foods they consume. They want to know the origin of their goods and whether they’ve been sourced using safe, healthy and environmentally friendly methods. The problem with such demands is that, until recently, there haven’t been many solutions for increased visibility within the food supply chain.

Growing concerns for health are now a priority, and visibility is an absolute must. Blockchain technology is the answer, providing precisely the kind of visibility, efficiency, controls and collaboration that consumers want.

With this food manufacturing technology in place, someone could trace a head of lettuce back to its initial seeding. They can see who grew the plants and where, and which methods they used to mature the crop. Then, they can follow its journey to the store shelf.

How is such a thing possible? It all has to do with the technology. In its simplest form, Blockchain is a digital ledger or complete and digitized record of a particular data set. The data that goes in is added to something called a block, and as more is added, it is tacked on to the end of that block to create a long, linked record. Every bit of information is visible across the entire chain, hence the name blockchain.

Walmart is using the technology to track potential food contamination outbreaks. It empowers them to not just find the source but also find the many branches involved — like where goods might have been shipped and who may have purchased them.

Food Manufacturing Technology for the Future

While each food manufacturing technology discussed here is incredibly influential and will have a direct impact on the future of the industry, they are not the only solutions making waves. Some additional examples include:

  • Drones and automated delivery vehicles
  • 3-D printing for edible goods
  • Smart or precision agriculture
  • High-tech packaging
  • Smarter waste disposal and recycling

The takeaway is that technology is vastly improving the operational efficiency of the food supply chain, from farmers and manufacturers to the retail stores featuring goods on their shelves. There’s no right or wrong buy-in, as any one of these technologies can be used to streamline separate processes. The biggest challenge will be deciding what to upgrade first, especially when it comes to delivering high-quality, fresh goods in a prompt manner.

Summer of 2020: Hot Topics Include FDA Inspections, Records Retention, and New Technology Era

By Food Safety Tech Staff
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10

Is Food-Grade always Food-Safe?

9

Important Restaurant Food Storage Safety Tips You Need to Know

8

How a History of Slow Technology Adoption Across Food Supply Chains Nearly Broke Us

7

FDA Unveils Blueprint for New Era of Smarter Food Safety

6

FDA, CDC Investigating Multistate Cyclospora Outbreak Involving Bagged Salads

5

COVID-19 Leads Food Companies and Meat Processors to Explore AI and Robotics, Emphasize Sanitation, and Work from Home

4

FDA Announces Inspections Will Resume…Sort Of

3

Sustainability Strategies for the Food Industry

2

Top Three Visibility Challenges in Today’s Food Supply Chain

1

The COVID-19 Record Retention Conundrum

Robotic technology, automation

Automation Bandwagon: Know the Challenges Before Jumping On

By Maria Fontanazza
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Robotic technology, automation

The food industry is behind high tech industries when it comes to automating certain manufacturing and warehousing processes. Although the advantages of using automation technologies can benefit many food companies in the long run, they should also be aware of the potential hurdles before moving forward. “With our growing population, we’re going to have to grow more food with [fewer] resources—automation will enable us to do that,” said Wendy White, project manager, food safety at Georgia Tech during her presentation at the IAFP annual meeting in Louisville, KY. “There are a lot of jobs in our industry that will benefit from automation—I don’t think it will necessarily eliminate jobs; I think it will help eliminate the harshness of some of the repetitive tasks.”

The benefits of automation are clear (especially for processes that involve close precision). Automation technologies can contribute to preventing injuries on the job, promote operational efficiencies, and give companies better access to records and reporting. They also can in turn enable the production of more consistent products, aid in faster product release and lower food costs. The following are the challenges that food companies may face, which include the reproduction of human senses, having the facility footprint that allows for these technologies, expense and complexity, and potential vulnerability to outages and even cybercrimes.

Challenge 1: It’s hard to replicate a human. It’s difficult to replicate any human task that requires thought. “For example, it’s hard for us to understand how many decisions go into picking off an apple from a tree,” said White. “It’s actually extremely hard for a robot to do… we underestimate how many things happen before you pick an apple.” White referred to a project at the Georgia Tech Research Institute’s Food Processing Technology Division that uses cameras to assess characteristics of an apple (i.e., insect intrusion spots, bruises, damage, ripeness, desired color), and integrates different sensing capabilities into a robotic arm. The robotic arm can sense the different gases being produced by the apple and can understand if it is at the peak of its ripeness. Yet, doing this type of work in a lab is very different from operating the robotic arm out in an actual apple orchard, so there is still a lot of work to be done.

Another example is the process of deboning a chicken carcass. “We have to figure out a way to get the bones off faster,” said White, adding that with American consumption of chicken reaching about 92 pounds annually, the poultry industry is trying to keep up. There are safety concerns with deboning, including making sure that a sliver of bone or cartilage is not left on the end product. It’s another task that is not easy for a robot to execute. She discussed current work that is using cameras and x-ray technology to understand the joint location, and from there this information is fed into an algorithm to help the robot make decisions that a trained human would intrinsically make. Once again, it takes a lot of effort for a robot to make those decisions, White pointed out.

Challenge 2: Facility footprint. Implementing automation technologies usually requires a larger facility footprint, and many food companies simply don’t have the space.

Challenge 3: Robot injuries. According to OSHA, about 4,500 injuries occurred in food facilities in 2013, two of which were robot related. However, those two robot-related injuries resulted in death. Although robot injuries are less likely to occur, they are usually more serious when they do happen, cautioned White. She stated between 1984 and 2013, 38 robot-related accidents were reported and 28 resulted in fatalities.

Challenge 4: Finding increasingly skilled labor. An employee needs to operate the robot. Although this may not seem like it would be difficult, the question is whether the existing workforce at a company can handle a completely different way of doing their jobs. Finding the level of skill required to either operate these robots or finding the employee who is willing to even work with these technologies could be a hurdle. White added that she is seeing a lot of research around co-bots, or collaborative robots, which is the term for robots that provide assistance to humans in conducting tasks such as heavy lifting.

Challenge 5: Complexity. The more complex the technology, the more likely there is to be an issue. And when this issue occurs, how long will it take to fix? Will it shut down an entire product line? This is also a consideration for companies that are considering retrofitting their existing facilities.

“We owe it to our workforce to make their jobs as safe and as easy as possible,” said White. She encourages industry to pursue automation but to also be aware of these challenges and vulnerabilities to ensure that companies are approaching implementation in the right way.