Automation for Food Safety

Poultry processor Tyson Foods have invested $500 million in robotics and automation in the past three years through their Tyson Ventures investment arm. Most recently, they joined in a $10 million funding round supporting new food processing automation fromSoft Robotics.

The new robots will use soft grasping arms together with AI and a new kind of 3D visual sensor to improve their picking skills. Currently available robots can’t choose from among varied objects. This makes it hard for them to sort fruits or to grab chicken parts.

“This is an exciting time at Soft Robotics,” Soft Robotics CEO Jeff Beck said. “The vulnerabilities of the food supply chain were illuminated by the pandemic making it clear that automation has graduated from a nice-to-have to a must-have across all large-scale food production operations. Soft Robotics patented technologies are ready and being used today to enable automation in the processing and packaging of proteins, produce and bakery products.”

Food safety

Tyson has good reason to be concerned about food safety. They’ve had to recall dozens of their products after one death and two hospitalizations from Listeria.

Tyson is also facing wrongful death suits regarding worker deaths during the pandemic.

Robots are an obvious choice to avoid contamination, the most likely cause of both these problems. But robots can’t handle objects with varied shapes effectively. They’re also not good with slippery things or delicate things.

Food, in other words.

Soft robots are different. They can use their pneumatic arms to grasp materials gently. They can function in wash down environments. And they definitely cause less one-to-one contamination than people do.

Labor shortage

The new robots planned by Soft Robotics, which the makers describe as having “hand to eye coordination,” will be a game changer for food handling.

They may also help with the food production labor shortage. It’s hard to get workers to work in meat processing plants now, since several such plants became COVID-19 hotspots last year. The work has been hard and dangerous in the past, but disruptions in the supply chain and pressures to cut costs have added to the challenges of this working environment.

Labor shortages are effecting companies across the country. Automation could help, and soft robots might make it easier to accomplish.

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