Imagine a machine making burgers or pancakes or sushi or burritos or pizza or rotis. Imagine a 3D printer printing the food you want to eat. Does that sound appetizing? Admittedly, it is a bit difficult to imagine and digest. Intelligent machines, which can justifiably be called robots as their capabilities increase, are venturing into new application areas within the very diverse and complex food industry. Many believe that cooking is a difficult craft that takes skill and a steep learning curve. But as robotic technologies are getting better day by day, robots are increasingly mastering the important parameters like cooking time, ingredient mixing, and so forth better than humans and can handle the art of cooking without experiencing fatigue. These are very useful characteristics in areas where there is a significant need for distinctive taste and consistency in quality. Be it grumpy-looking noodle-slicing robots across China, tirelessly working for hours, or burger-making robots from Momentum Machines, which claims to offer custom meat grinds for every customer and produce 360 hamburgers per hour, the perception about robots being useless in the kitchen is changing fast.
Robot chefs might sound very futuristic. If we believe British company Moley Robotics, however, we are not too far from this being a reality. Moley Robotics says its fully robotic kitchen (robot chefs) will be on the market by 2017. The company wants to put robotic chefs in kitchens that can prepare all types of delicious meals in collaboration with celebrity chefs in the next few years. These robots consist of two robotic hands that can mimic the movements of a human chef and can do everything from assembling and chopping ingredients to cooking on the stove or in the oven. The robot chef will be able to produce 2,000 meals with the push of a button. You can control it either by using a built-in touchscreen or remotely with a smartphone app. However, at this moment it as appears as though robot chefs will have a multitude of practical issues to resolve before they can reach the hands of everyday consumers. But certainly, this approach represents a small glimpse of the robot future in our kitchens.
Many traditional industrial robots from companies like ABB, Fanuc, Staubli, and Kuka are already involved in the food processing industry. In fact, these robots are getting better and better and slowly expanding their influence in each and every step of food processing. Processes like cutting, sorting, pick and place, loading and unloading, and packaging and palletizing are the most common tasks conducted by these robots. Handling of sensitive foodstuffs that are fragile, lightweight or heavy, soft or frozen cannot be done efficiently using human labor and industrial robots are gaining popularity for such applications. The reason is that robots are providing huge benefits to food manufacturers in terms of food cleanliness, worker safety, and labor costs. According to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and prevention), each year roughly 1 out of 6 Americans (or 48 million people) get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die from foodborne diseases. In many cases, consumers contract these diseases by consuming contaminated or poorly processed food and beverages. Total food supply for processed food has been increasing at a sharp rate, resulting in greater risk of consuming contaminated food. For food manufacturers, monitoring, controlling, and ensuring exceptional quality in the food preparation process has become a subject of highest priority. Moreover, food manufacturers face a number of challenges in their operations related to labor availability and the uncertainty of increasing costs. In light of these issues, nothing can be a better companion to these manufacturers than a robot.
The fast food and food processing industries are ever-growing. The global demand for fast food items, bakery, beverages, dairy, cheese, confectionery, meat, fish, egg, fruits, vegetables, animal food, and many more categories has increased significantly and eventually these industries will have no other alternative but to robotize. New robot technologies and advanced inspection systems can now do what old machines and even humans couldn’t do before. Perhaps, the day is not too far when affording a skilled human workforce in the food industry will become a matter of luxury in many developed economies.