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Robots Help Provide Consumers with Safer Food

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:

  • Production workers get sick or work in a food prep environment before they realize that they are sick.
  • Workers don't adhere to cleanliness standards 100% of the time.
  • Cross-contamination - When one food item comes in contact with another either by equipment or when foods are processed near each other.
  • Fixed equipment such as conveyors and cutting tools, become contaminated with bacteria if not cleaned properly.
  • Products are stored or processed at unacceptable temperatures or lengths. Contaminated products can slip through the production process if it is not monitored properly.
  • Recently, food recalls have occurred because of product mislabeling for certain food allergens.

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    Safe Food Processing with a FANUC Robotics M-430iA Robot

    Safe Food Processing with a FANUC Robotics M-430i ARobot

    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.

    Preventing Foodborne Illnesses

    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 Robotics America Corporation. "Penetration of robots upstream from end of line palletizing has been made possible by higher performance robots.”

    Reduce Worker Injury, Cut Costs, and Increase Yield with Industrial Food Robots

    FANUC Robotics M-430i A Robots ProcessingStacks of Sliced Luncheon Meat

    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 injury.

    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.

    FANUC Robotics' M-430iA Robots Processing Stacks of Sliced Luncheon Meat

    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 Robotics 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.

    Precise Meat Cutting - [VIDEO]

    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:

  • Improved sanitation – 100% consistent sanitation at higher temperatures than can be used with humans; no cross-contamination between animals; consistent tool sanitation.
  • Improved worker safety – heavy, dangerous tools, and highly repetitive tasks equate to mindless repetition and high risk of accidental injury.
  • Extended tool life – more consistent engagement of cutting tool and reduced vibration/chatter.
  • Reduced labor costs – especially issues related to frequent labor turnover including training.
  • 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 products.

    Financial Justification

    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.

    Application Example - Rotary Milking Parlor [VIDEO]

    Green Source Automation, together with FANUC Robotics, 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 Robotics' Robots

    FANUC Robotics 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.

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    For more information on using FANUC Robots in your food preparation process, refer to