Robots extend reach in the food industry

Robot use in food manufacturing is increasing. While robots are more common in the US than in the EU, several EU countries boast the highest levels of robotization. Better technology, the need to stay competitive, and worker safety are driving the shift, with Covid-19 accelerating the process

The rise of robotics in food and beverage manufacturing continues
The ongoing process of automation in food and beverage manufacturing is reflected in the steady growth of industrial robots. The total global operational stock of robots grew by 8.600 in 2020, according to the latest data from the International Federation of Robotics (IFR). As a result of the continuous growth, robot stock has almost doubled since 2014. The majority of newly installed robots among food manufacturers in 2020 were destined for the EU (27%), China (26%), and the US (22%). While robots are becoming more common in food manufacturing, their presence is limited to a minority of businesses with, for example, only one in ten food producers in the EU currently making use of robots.  

The reasons behind the ongoing automation and robotization in food manufacturing
Covid has fuelled discussions on automation and robotization. This is especially relevant for activities that have proven hard to automate in the past, like meat processing, but in addition to Covid, there are several structural reasons why food and drink manufacturers would consider investing in robots. These can be grouped into three categories, with the case for robotization being especially strong when it serves several goals. 

  • Cost competitiveness: labor costs are increasing and food manufacturers are struggling with labor availability due to the upturn in the economy and an aging workforce. Hence, automation can help to improve productivity, reduce production costs per unit, and make companies less dependent on labor for specific tasks.
  • The need to further improve product quality: customers such as retailers are setting stricter product specifications and automated production processes can improve food safety (less contamination) and product consistency.
  • The type of work: many jobs in food production take place in cold conditions or involve repetitive tasks and heavy lifting. In these cases, robots can help to improve employee wellbeing and workplace safety.

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