Robotics and Competitiveness in the F&B Industry

June 2015
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Image Source: Mandai FoodLink

Many of the relevant indicators point to a growing trend in the use of robots in the Food and Beverages industry (F&B). Among the drivers impelling this development are changes in social behavior and consumer preferences, adaptation to an increasingly demanding regulatory environment, and the need to increase productivity in order to give a higher return on capital investment.


  • Technological innovation to feed the world’s growing population - By 2050 the world population will have increased by some 50% over the seven billions we already are. With this demographic growth, and the increased consumption there will be in developed and developing countries, the global food supply will need to double over that period if we are to be able to feed everyone. Over 70% of this increase will have to come from technological innovations that will increase agricultural yields and enhance our ability to produce food in the various forms that will be required, as commodities on the world market. (Source: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), How to Feed the World in 2050)

  • The use of robots is growing in the F&B industry - In the period 2011-2013 the F&B industry as a whole ordered 28% more robots than theretofore, almost 6,200 units in total, or some 4% of all the industrial robots ordered in that period. (Source: International Federation of Robotics (IFR), World Robotics-Industrial Robots 2014)

  • Collaborative robots present and to come in the industry – Analyses indicate that over the period 2012-2016 the F&B industry will expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 5.5 %, or by more than $200 billion. This market has already been witness to the deployment of next-generation industrial robots, and this is undoubtedly going to continue. (Source: Technavio, Global Industrial Robotics Market in Food and Beverage Industry 2012-2016)

  • F&B is among the industries which are leading the demand for robots – Precision engineering, optics, metals and F&B are the four industrial segments that will lead overall demand for industrial robots in the years to come. (Source: Transparency Market Research (TMR), Industrial Robotics Market - Global Industry Analysis, Size, Share, Growth, Trends and Forecast, 2014–2020)


  • What the new consumers want – The social changes that are so apparent in today’s world bring with them new trends in consumption, in food as in many other areas. Health, convenience and environmental sustainability are the three main watchwords in the minds of the new, more educated and more demanding type of consumer with regard to their food. To maintain optimal physical health over a longer life the new consumer wants healthy, fresh, natural and, if possible, organic food, with no additives or preservatives. At the same time, in order to adapt to the hurried pace of modern life, and to keep up a certain energy balance in his or her food intake, the new consumer wants portions that are just the right size of packaged, and sometimes pre-cooked, food that is easy to transport from store to home. From being more environmentally aware than ever, the new consumer demands that the companies from which he or she buys should adhere strictly to the regulations regarding  sustainability and respect for the environment in its production. These considerations affect the F&B industry along the whole supply chain and make it incumbent on companies to look for automation solutions that are adaptable to shorter production cycles, that reduce the time-to-market, and that facilitate variability and innovation in the products themselves. Robots can offer such flexible solutions, with a faster payback than the classical automation model using machinery specialized in only one specific, fixed task.

  • From handling boxes to handling food – Despite a clear tendency towards growth, the market for robotics in the F&B industry still represents only a small fraction of the overall global market for industrial robotics. The robots currently at work in the F&B industry – with the exception of milking robots and other robots used for work on the farm – are found mainly in tasks that do not require direct contact with food, such as packaging, palletizing,and distribution. In recent years robots have begun to have their part in food processing tasks such as handling prepared or frozen food, or in the cutting and trimming of pieces of meat. This evolution in the use of robots stems from their more sophisticated and efficient handling capabilities, which are based on the mimicking of human activities. The Gribbot from the Norwegian research center SINTEF, for example, is a robotic concept which uses a 3D visioning system and dextrous handling devices to recognize the shape of a piece of chicken and to separate fillets and other cuts from the carcass, with the maximum precision and the minimum loss of meat. Over the coming years systems such as these will replace human operators in some of the most disagreeable, and often dangerous, tasks in the deboning and dressing of animals in the industrial food production chain.

  • Collaborative robotics for a poultry sector dominated by SMBs - One of the reasons why there is as yet only a limited presence of robots in the F&B industry is that the vast majority of companies in this sector are small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). SMBs represent more than 97% of companies in this sector in the United States, and in the EU this is over 99%. Up to now SMBs have found it harder to acquire robots due to the high cost of the initial investment and the ongoing maintenance, as well as to the fact that to date robots have not been that well adapted to the needs of shorter production cycles. In this scenario, even with a clear and persuasive business case for the introduction of robots, they have not yet been widely implemented. The emergence in recent years of collaborative robots that are affordable, easy to program and re-fit, and offer payback over a short period, opens the way to a roboticization of the sector that seems absolutely inevitable.

  • Hygienic design in the F&B industry - Machinery and robotic installations in the F&B industry must comply in their design and manufacture with strict hygiene regulations that cover the whole automation process. The regulations take into account everything from the selection of the materials with which the machinery is to be made to the use of specific seals. It must be possible to hose down or wash these machines with water, so they have to be resistant to corrosion and and damage to their working parts that water might cause. The standardization of regulations across the world is an ongoing process but organizations such 3-A Sanitary Standards Inc. (3-A SSI) in the United States and the European Hygienic Engineering and Design Group (EHEDG) are collaborating in defining standards of hygienic design for food equipment, in the dissemination of information, and in the training and advice they offer to professionals in these areas. The 3-A SSI regulation already requires the regular check-ups on the machinery to be done by third parties, to ensure impartiality in the certification process. There are many opportunities for the incorporation of robots in this productive sector, but their manufacturers and the systems integrators who install and adapt them must ensure not only that their products meet today’s standards of hygienic design, but that they will be able to meet future requirements in an industry which is becoming increasingly regulated.