Advanced robots automating more tasks for safer, cheaper food processing

The food industry is taking a hands-off approach to improve safety and reduce production costs by using robots.

With enhanced vision sensors, end-of-arm tools (EOAT) and wash-down capabilities, food manufacturers will increasingly be able to use lighter, more flexible robots for tasks previously reserved for manual labor. The contention is that taking humans out of the picture could yield fewer contamination risks, enable more automation in meat packaging and slicing, and result in fewer on-the-job injuries.

"In the industrial space alone, we expect that robots could provide up to $1.2 trillion in value by 2025 through labor-saving productivity gains," said Dominic Barton, a global managing director at McKinsey & Co., a consulting firm that has studied the issue.1

A man-made industry

In the 1980s, the use of robotics in food processing was mostly relegated to end-of-the-line tasks such as packaging and palletizing. The introduction of the Delta robot in the 1990s allowed robots to move upstream in the baking industry, and have direct contact with food. With better motion-control algorithms, these bots performed pick-and-place tasks, grabbing and moving food at high speeds. Delta robots are often used for sorting and packaging foods like candies, frozen foods or baked goods, and are being similarly applied in cosmetic and pharmaceutical manufacturing processes.2

Between 2001 and 2008, more advances allowed robot models to be washed down with high-pressure washers and other models to be made of stainless steel, aligning them with U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture standards.3

Today, the food industry mostly uses a combination of man and machine for its production processes—automating high-volume production of a single food product.4

Robot evolution

Many types of food are never consistent: Chicken breasts, for example, are slippery and vary in size and shape. Currently, human operators perform tasks with products that are too complex for robots: handling multiple packaging configurations, identifying and removing defective products, as well as loading wrapping machines.5 Advances in robotics, however, will reduce these traditionally human-only tasks.

Vision sensors give robots "sight," for example, allowing them to orient an object for handling and inspection. To overcome the current limitations of robotics in food processing, new vision sensors must be able to read depth, an object’s orientation and changes in lighting, and identify randomly sorted objects. Complex algorithms, along with cameras and software, help robots distinguish what’s in front of them.

This automated system must also work seamlessly with its handling mechanisms in order to avoid collisions with other robots or objects.6 Robotic companies offer pick-and-place robots that can be integrated with a vision system that isn’t thrown off by the random presentation of products on conveyor belts.7

Robots’ EOATs have become more flexible, and they can better deal with delicate food products. Manufacturers are designing smarter EOATs that handle food without damaging it, minimize food buildup on a machine, perform packaging tasks and withstand cleaning.

For example, researchers at SINTEF, a Scandinavian research organization, are working on creating a robot that can remove breast fillets from chickens. The task is normally done by humans because of the delicacy of chicken fillets, but after equipping their machine with flexible grasping tools and 3-D vision, the job could become automated for the first time.8

"In the case of chicken fillets, this also means making optimum use of the material," said Ekrem Misimi, a technical cyberneticist who studies how humans interact with machines. "A flexible grasping tool scrapes the carcass while pulling it off the fillet, removing as much of the meat as possible."9

Health costs

Beyond reducing production costs, robots also could enhance food safety. Annually, food recalls and foodborne illnesses cost the United States $77 billion.10 Direct contact with food by production workers results in the majority of contaminations in foodborne illnesses.11

Cross contamination, bacteria and other environmental contaminants can be introduced into food from human skin unless sanitary polices are strictly followed. Unfortunately, humans don’t always follow these policies, and it’s more difficult for bacteria to stick on wash-down robots with smooth surfaces. It’s also easier to sanitize the robotic equipment with high-pressure water and disinfecting chemicals.12

Besides the cleanliness factor, there always have been challenges for workers in food processing environments.

Processing plants sometimes run at low or high temperatures, making long working hours difficult for operators by adding to physical and mental fatigue. The high-speed, repetitive nature of production tasks for workers also poses health risks such as musculoskeletal disorders—which can lead to muscle pain and sleeplessness.13

"Work-related musculoskeletal disorders remain the leading cause of workplace injury and illness in this country," said David Michaels, U.S. assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.14

In the end, work-related injuries, medical expenses, time off and loss of production can add up to big costs for food manufacturers.

Slicing, portioning, packing and inspecting are just a few of the applications offered today for robots. As their features and capabilities evolve, so will their roles in food production, giving manufacturers safer, faster production at a lower cost.

Drawbacks, however, exist in expensive initial investments needed for new equipment, maintenance costs, unguaranteed return on investments, and employee training programs for working with the machines.15 

"Our aim is to automate absolutely everything we can think of on the food production line," Misimi said. "Automating this work will speed up production and make it more efficient. It will free up the producer’s capacity and make better use of the raw materials."16

—compiled by Tyler Gaskill, contributing editor


  1. "What Jobs Will Robots Have in the Future?" Wall Street Journal, July 3, 2014, http://tinyurl.com/wallstrobot.
  2. Austin Weber, "Delta Robots Feed Need for Speed," Assembly, Feb. 3, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/deltaspeed.
  3. ABB Ltd., "FDA and USDA Certified Robotic Food Processing Systems," white paper, http://tinyurl.com/abbwhitepaper.
  4. Steve Davis, "Robotics and Automation for the Food Industry," Food Safety Magazine, August/September 2014, http://tinyurl.com/roboticfood.
  5. ABB Ltd., "FDA and USDA Certified Robotic Food Processing Systems," see reference 3.
  6. "What is Robot Vision?" RobotWorx, www.robots.com/faq/show/what-is-robot-vision.
  7. "Delta Robots Improve Highly Repetitive Tasks," FANUC, http://tinyurl.com/robotsimprove.
  8. "Using Robots to Get More Food from Raw Materials," The Poultry Site, Jan. 5, 2015, http://tinyurl.com/robopoultry.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Jenni Spinner, "Food Recalls Cost Billions Each Year," Food Production Daily.com, Sept. 11, 2013, http://tinyurl.com/recallbillions.
  11. ABB Ltd., "FDA and USDA Certified Robotic Food Processing Systems," see reference 3.
  12. Gretchen Edelbrock, "EPSON Robots: Wash Down Robots for Food, Medical Applications," Packworld.com, Dec. 20, 2012, http://tinyurl.com/washdownrobo.
  13. "Pain Management: Musculoskeletal Pain," WebMD.com, http://tinyurl.com/muscpain.
  14. "U.S. Labor Department’s OSHA Temporarily Withdraws Proposed Column for Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders, Reaches Out to Small Businesses," news release, U.S. Department of Labor, Jan. 25, 2011, http://tinyurl.com/muscdisorder.
  15. "Advantages and Disadvantages of Automating with Industrial Robots," RobotWorx, http://tinyurl.com/advantagestorobots.
  16. "Using Robots to Get More Food From Raw Materials," see reference 8.


Fuel Economy Ranks No. 1 for New Vehicle Buyers

Despite gas prices falling to their lowest levels since 2010, fuel economy—for a fourth consecutive year—remains the most influential factor when buyers select a new vehicle, according to a recent J.D. Power report.

According to the 12th annual study, 14% of new-vehicle owners cited gas mileage as the most influential reason for selecting the vehicle they ultimately purchased.

Gas mileage is the primary purchase reason among buyers of compact, small and mid-size cars, and compact multi-purpose vehicles. Consequently, fuel economy is the second-most common reason a model is rejected by shoppers at dealerships in favor of another model (16%).

Exterior look and design is the top reason shoppers avoid a particular vehicle.

"Consumers know that, although gas prices are low today, the cost of fuel will likely increase during the time they own their vehicle," said Arianne Walker, senior director, automotive media and marketing at J.D. Power.

"Clearly, consumers are considering the total cost of ownership when selecting their new vehicle," Walker said.

For more about the study, visit http://tinyurl.com/new-vehicle-survey.

Who’s Who in Q

NAME: Jay Zhou.


EDUCATION: Doctorate in engineering from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1987.

INTRODUCTION TO QUALITY: Zhou’s doctoral dissertation was about highway bridge reliability. He considers the doctoral research his introduction to quality. His first exposure at Ford Motor Co. was as a quality and reliability engineer.

CURRENT JOB: Zhou currently serves as executive technical leader for global quality at Ford Motor Co. and reports to the group vice president for global quality and new model launch. In this role, he is responsible for the development of Ford’s corporate quality strategy, global quality business planning and productivity improvement plan. He also reports to the chief technical officer and vice president for global research. In this dual role, Zhou serves on the technology advisory board, focusing on the discovery, development and delivery of innovative technologies.

PREVIOUS JOBS: Zhou worked for the Pratt Whitney Division of United Technologies, where he designed and analyzed jet engines for airplanes.

ASQ ACTIVITIES: Zhou is executive champion for Ford’s ASQ enterprise membership. He also is secretary of ASQ Automotive Division and program chair of ASQ’s Ann Arbor section in Michigan.

OTHER ACTIVITIES/ACHIEVEMENTS: Zhou is active in the Society of Automotive Engineers International, serving as associate editor of its International Journal of Materials and Manufacturing. Additionally, he is a guest professor at Nanjing University of Technology in Jiangsu, China.

PUBLISHED WORKS: More than 30 papers in professional journals and proceedings related to quality, reliability and robust engineering. He has also been invited to speak at national and international conferences and symposiums.

RECENT HONORS: In 2013, Zhou received the inaugural Ford China Ambassador Award for support of Ford’s plans in China. He received Taguchi Robust Design Recognition at the annual Taguchi Symposium and the Total Product Development Symposium three times for contributions to robust engineering. Zhou also was named the ASQ Automotive Quality Professional of Year in 2010 for his leadership and contribution to continuous quality improvement. He was part of ASQ’s 2014 class of fellows.

PERSONAL: Married with two children.

QUALITY QUOTE: "Quality is about understanding customers’ expectations and exceeding their expectations. It does not happen by chance—there is science behind it."


Booklets on Latest Baldrige Excellence Framework Released

The Baldrige Performance Excellence Program has released three versions of the 2015-2016 Baldrige Excellence Framework—with individual booklets targeting business/nonprofit, healthcare and education sectors.

The 2015–2016 Baldrige framework features a renewed focus on:

  • Managing and leading all components of an entire organization.
  • Managing change.
  • Dealing with data analytics, data integrity and cybersecurity.

Each version also includes the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence. To purchase a copy, visit http://asq.org/2015baldrige. Each copy is $25.


New Standard Addresses Manufacturing Management

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International says it has developed the first standard for manufacturing management.

AS6500 provides tools to measure manufacturing maturity and steps to successfully advance the manufacturing process. The standard also ensures more consistent implementation of practices throughout the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DOD) industrial base early in the acquisition life cycle.

Designed to benefit the DOD and industry, the standard is expected to improve cost and schedule performance on contracts, helping to create robust and reliable manufacturing systems.

"When we talk about manufacturing, a significant amount of work is offloaded to suppliers, and that’s where many of the problems and opportunities reside," said David Karr, chairman of SAE International’s G-23 Committee and technical advisor for manufacturing and quality for the U.S. Air Force.

"This standard not only addresses in-house manufacturing management at a prime contractor’s location, but also the management of their suppliers. The standard covers best practices for ensuring that the right part gets to the right place at the right time," he added.

For more information, visit http://standards.sae.org/wip/as6500.

Short Runs

REGISTRATION HAS OPENED for this year’s International Association for Food Protection conference. The annual event takes place July 25–28 in Portland, OR. For more information, visit http://tinyurl.com/food-conference-portland.

A ONE-DAY SEMINAR on the American National Standard (ANS) development process and procedures will be held March 24 in New York. Hosted by the American National Standards Institute, the course is intended for standards developing organization staff members who administer the ANS process. For more details, visit http://tinyurl.com/ansi-course.

JURAN GLOBAL, a research and consulting group based in Southington, CT, has hired Michael Glavich as executive vice president of business development. Glavich’s background includes healthcare, financial services, insurance, consumer products, hospitality and high-tech industries. He received his education from the University of Central Florida before pursuing a career in consulting. For more information, visit www.juran.com/about-us/news.

Date in Quality History

QP occasionally looks back on an event or person that made a difference in the history of quality.

March 18, 1891

Walter Shewhart, considered the father of statistical quality control, was born in New Canton, IL, on this date.

Regarding the intersection of science and quality, Shewhart once said: "Both pure and applied science have gradually pushed further and further the requirements for accuracy and precision. However, applied science, particularly in the mass production of interchangeable parts, is even more exacting than pure science in certain matters of accuracy and precision."


Word to the Wise

To educate newcomers and refresh practitioners and professionals, QP occasionally features a quality term and definition.

Cellular manufacturing

Arranging machines in the correct process sequence, with operators remaining within the cell and materials presented to them from outside./p>


  • "Quality Glossary," Quality Progress, June 2007, p. 42.

ASQ Journal Spotlight

QP occasionally highlights an open-access article from one of ASQ’s seven other journals.

This month, read "Remembering George E. P. Box: (Some) Anecdotes and Examples of His Industrial Statistics Legacy," which appeared in January’s edition of Quality Engineering.

In the article, author José Ramírez offers anecdotes about Box’s life and some practical examples of his many innovative techniques in the area of industrial statistics.

To access the article, click on the "Current Issue" link of Quality Engineering’s website: http://asq.org/pub/qe/2015/vol27-no1/index.html. From there, you also can find a link to information about subscribing to the quarterly publication.

ASQ News

NEW POST FOR PAST PRESIDENT H. James Harrington, a past president and chair of ASQ, has been elected the president of the Altshuller Institute for TRIZ Studies. The institute, based in Worcester, MA, is one of two global organizations that has developed a TRIZ certification process and promotes TRIZ in the world marketplace. TRIZ is a Russian acronym for a problem solving tool developed by Genrich Altshuller. For more information, visit www.aitriz.org.

DEADLINE EXTENDED Organizers for ASQ’s 2015 Audit Conference have extended the deadline for the call for papers. Those interested in presenting at the conference, "Audits: Improving Performance, Managing Risk, Driving Customer Satisfaction and Revenue," have until March 31 to submit proposals. Presenters will receive free registration to attend the conference, which will be Oct. 29 in Reno, NV. For more information about the call for papers, visit http://tinyurl.com/audit-papers.

NEW CASE STUDY ASQ’s Knowledge Center has released a new case study showcasing how one school district in Wisconsin used lean to improve student literacy. To download the five-page case study, visit http://tinyurl.com/school-case-study. There, you can also access ASQ’s collection of 1,700 case studies.

CALL FOR ARTICLES Six Sigma Forum Magazine, ASQ’s quarterly, peer-reviewed publication dedicated to Six Sigma, is seeking articles for publication. For information on the review process, types of articles considered and submission requirements, visit www.asq.org/pub/sixsigma.

Average Rating


Out of 0 Ratings
Rate this article

Add Comments

View comments
Comments FAQ

Featured advertisers