According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), “each
year roughly 1 out of 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick, 128,000
are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases.” Consumers
contract these foodborne diseases by consuming tainted processed food or beverages.
Since the total food supply available for consumption has steadily increased
over the last several years, approximately 19% between 1983 and 2000,
there is an increased consumer risk to eat or drink contaminated foods (Read more...). Monitoring,
controlling, and ensuring exceptional quality in the food preparation process
has become a high priority for food manufacturers. They are concerned now
more than ever about the safety of their products since contaminated food
can be costly to those who produce it, and detrimental or fatal to those who
consume it. Robots used in the food production and packaging process can
help eliminate this concern.
Several factors can affect the safety of processed food as the food
preparation cycle has historically been vulnerable to contaminants. Food contamination
can occur in any step in the process of providing food to the consumers’
door – from preparation, to packaging, to palletizing, and even during
transportation. The following factors can lead to unsafe food handling:
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Companies also risk damaging their corporate image if they are involved
in a food recall. When large-scale food recalls occur, there is the potential
of complete corporate failure due to litigation and image repair costs. For
example in August of 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety
and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that 8,500 lbs of beef was recalled because it might be contaminated with E. coli O26. These recalls can cost
billions as in the peanut butter recall in 2009 where it was reported that
the “impact of the nationwide peanut butter recall has been far reaching
and could ultimately cost America’s peanut producers up to $1 billion
in lost production and sales.”
As food recalls have occurred across several industries and countries,
and can cost companies millions or billions in sales and lost production,
food manufacturers need to scrutinize their processes and be proactive at
eliminating any potentially unsanitary methods. As a result, the government
is getting more involved. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which
went into effect in 2011, was created to ensure a secure food monitoring system
that is proactive rather than reactive. Food manufacturers are now required
to survey their operations, identify areas of possible contamination, and
administer and control prevention measures. In addition, they must have a
defined plan of action in place to correct identified problems. The legislation
“also requires FDA to establish science-based standards for the safe
production and harvesting of fruits and vegetables to minimize the risk of
serious illnesses or death. This new ability to hold food companies accountable
for preventing contamination is a significant milestone in the efforts to
modernize the food safety system.” In addition, the rules are being
strengthened. Recently the FDA was given the ability to hold any food that
it feels was produced under “insanitary or unsafe conditions,”
and it can hold food for up to 30 days that it feels to be “adulterated
or misbranded.” (Read more...) Tougher rules should confirm food manufacturers'
commitment to food safety.
The CDC website reports that there has been a “20% reduction in
illnesses caused by the pathogens it tracks,” for the past 10 years.
Manufacturers are seeing this improvement due to these proactive measures.
“It is possible that foodborne illnesses have also decreased through
investments made on better detection, prevention, education, and control efforts.” The introduction of robots into the food preparation process can
effectively and dramatically reduce the high costs of food contamination and
recalls, and even improve the production process. New regulations are the
perfect entry point for robotics into this process if they were not there
already. As evidence, the robotics industry has enjoyed an increased presence
into food manufacturing facilities. The Robotics Industry
Association website reports that in 2010, “non-automotive orders jumped
46%” due in large part by an increase in sales in “food and consumer
goods (+47%)." "Robots are actively forming food products,
such as butchering meat," said Dick Motley of FANUC America Corporation.
"Penetration of robots upstream from end of line palletizing has been made
possible by higher performance robots.”
Robots can be involved in and improve each step
in the process. Since robots are especially good for repetitive, difficult
tasks, their implementation can also cut down on the number of repetitive
injury reports. For example in most farming facilities, hand-milking processes
have been replaced by automation in order to improve quality and eliminate
the difficult milking task. As a secondary benefit, robotics makes the process
more efficient by cutting the high-cost of traditional fixed equipment. Historically,
cow milking processes required the farmer frequently to bend or crouch, and
milk the cow from a position either next to the cow, or from behind the cow
between its legs. The milking process is natural for a cow but is unnatural
for the farmer who has to perform this uncomfortable task. Introduction of
robotics into the milking process can eliminate manual milking, control over
milking, sanitize the process, and can protect the animal and farmer from
Robots also assist in solving difficult and repetitive strain ergonomic
issues related to squeezing stacks of meat patties manually into packaging.
Recently, innovative sanitized grippers have been incorporated with few moving
parts to conform to irregular edges of patties. Robots can then stack patties
at higher rates than before in addition to conserving space in expensive,
non-ergonomically friendly refrigerated plants. Grippers, along with highly
sophisticated vision systems, can handle varying portion sizes and evaluate
product in addition to checking product weight.
Chicken and fish processing has also enjoyed the entrance of high speed
robot technology into the packaging processes. USDA-accepted robots, enabled
for the food environment, move products at higher rates than manual labor,
reduce contamination risk, and provide consistent loading accuracy. Vision
sensors are incorporated together with conveyor tracking, which emulates hand-eye
coordination. The final piece of the puzzle is innovative gripping technology
which handles thin and thick-sliced meat portions, chicken parts, fish, and
also has been applied to cheese. In the following figure, two FANUC America
M-430iA Robots use iRVision
to find stacks of sliced lunchmeat and transfer them to a horizontal form,
fill, and seal (HFFS) machine.
In addition to reducing employee injury, and managing varying product
sizes, robots can minimize rising labor costs. Rising labor costs in some
areas can be due to immigration or wage violations. As Julia Preston reports
in the New York Times, one of the country's
largest meatpackers was fined $10 million for various wage violations.
In addition, 400 illegal immigrant workers were arrested. Using robots to
perform repetitive manual labor tasks proves to be cost effective, and workers
can take on more satisfying, less dangerous tasks.
Robots are also making an impact even farther upstream to some of the
initial processing applications where the robot operates directly on the animal
carcass. In these cases we see the common theme of increased
yield – more consistently precise cuts, no variation due
to operator fatigue, and reduced saw-blade overheating, with related burning
losses. Other benefits include:
The original manual meat cutting process required finesse and dexterity
of the cut. That finesse highlights one of the hidden costs of a manual operation
– that process knowledge is lost with worker turnover.
Now we can think of the robot as a means to capture that expertise and retain
it permanently. The robot is easily capable of exerting sufficient force
for these important precise cuts. An easy-to-use user interface allows custom
definition of the cutting path to optimize cuts for highest yield and premium
It is estimated that robots can help manufacturers enjoy roughly a 3%
yield improvement in situations where precise cuts make the difference between
contaminated meat and sellable product. This means that in an environment
where there might be 6-8 workers processing 10,000 hogs per shift, there are
approximately 60,000-80,000 opportunities for error in every shift. Three
percent of 10,000 hogs is less than a half percent of the 60-80,000 operations
performed by these employees. This can turn into a < 1 year payback. This
is often easy to achieve if you have made an honest assessment of the current
manual process, and the probability of operator error.
This example demonstrates that the true benefits of robotic automation
often go far beyond simple direct labor savings.
Manufacturers involved in recalls, especially for those products in
the refrigerated supply chain, can minimize costs with processes that identify
and track the product origination and production path. Lot and product bar
codes track product from its source through final production allowing for
a narrow product recall scope if necessary, in addition to minimizing cross-contamination
risks. Robotic vision systems such as FANUC's iRVision
package can read several 1D and 2D barcodes, and store this information in
string registers for traceability. The 2D barcode is read or data is captured
to determine which part type and lot number to ensure traceability throughout
the supply–chain. Robots can also be interfaced to other product identification
technologies such as RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) tags.
Green Source Automation, together with FANUC America, has created an
automated system used in rotary milking parlors in which ceiling-mounted M-710iC robots consistently apply “cow dip”
to cow udders. A rotary milking parlor is an efficient means of milking cows since
the cows stand and can be milked while rotating on the parlor platform. A
vision system is also used to track the motion of the rotary platform in either
direction. The robot, along with the built-in vision system, locates each area
to be disinfected after milking.
FANUC America offers several robot models that can be used to solve
issues in the food preparation process. For example, the M-430iA
robot is USDA accepted in the meat and poultry industry. This robot is constructed
of materials that will withstand the generally humid operating environment
and high pressure, hot water cleaning with strong chemical cleaning agents
typically found in this industry. In addition, equipment surfaces are smooth;
corrosion and abrasion resistant; shatterproof; nontoxic; non-absorbent; and
not capable of migrating into food products.
The M-3iA and LR Mate 200iC/5C robots
can use food-grade grease, and feature a special coating to handle acid and
alkaline disinfectants, and low-pressure rinsing. Both robot models can work
with primary (unpackaged) or secondary (packaged) food products, and have
an IP67 rating for the entire robot which means the robot is waterproof and
can withstand harsh environments.
Let us send you more information. Click here to
be contacted by a FANUC America representative.
For more information on using FANUC Robots in your food preparation
process, refer to http://www.fanucrobotics.com/Products/Robots/food-grade-robots.aspx.