Beyond packaging and machine tending, automation has moved into food preparation and food serving in customer-facing restaurants. How will cobots feature in our “zero-touch” and “contactless” post-pandemic future?

In the post-pandemic world, vigilant measures have been imposed to elevate health and safety standards. As governments prioritize safety with fewer human touchpoints, innovative technologies such as automation and robotics have been introduced in tech-savvy metropolitan cities.

Now, contactless technologies have become a game-changer across various industries. With airlines offering “zero-touch” technologies, to the healthcare industry using robots and artificial intelligence (AI) to reduce human contact and to maintain hygiene, the food industry should not be overlooked.

Automation is reaching beyond secondary processes such as packaging and machine tending to even food preparation and food serving in customer-facing restaurants. How does the segment of collaborative robots (cobots) fit in the greater puzzle of a “contactless” future?

Melding automation with the food industry

Automation through cobots is a recent innovation that especially benefits small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). The use of these small-sized cobots can be implemented economically, while their simple programming would make them ideal for the varied applications in the SMB sector. These cobots enable companies to better deal with volatile markets while increasing competitiveness.

Repetitive tasks, and tiring and strenuous movements, are one of the main issues for those who work in the food industry. Hence, cobots are now at the forefront of the food industry transformation. They have become the “third helping hand” in production, which take over physically demanding work, and give workers time and space for more valuable tasks – while preserving employment for human workers.

Common applications of cobots

In the food industry, the quality of the products and their “zero-fault” processing and handling are especially important. For example, gripping packaged food, and preparing for transport, require delicate touch and precision, all criteria well within the domain of cobots.

The application of UR cobots has also proved useful in environments with special climate or hygiene requirements, fulfilling all the specific requirements of the food industry. Cobots can work in ambient temperatures between 0 and 50 degrees Celsius and function in low-oxygen environments while performing complex and repetitive tasks that would otherwise challenge or confound human workers. The machines are hermetically sealed and provided with a smooth outer housing that collects almost no dust or deposits.

Rising deployments of cobots in restaurants

Although cobots excel in low-touch processes, their flexibility and easy-to-program capability allow them to be deployed even in customer-facing environments. Designed to work alongside human workers without the need for safety fences (upon risk assessment), cobots are now often seen in restaurants performing tasks such as serving or the preparation of food items.

For example, Babo Arms, a bubble tea shop located in Taiwan, introduced the UR5 cobot to its production process, including making tea, cleaning cups, sealing drinks, and handling drinks to customers. Initially, Babo Arms was facing challenges due to labor shortages and space constraints. However, the deployment of UR5 cobots freed human workers from repetitive tasks, allowing them to work on meaningful and value-added tasks such as hand-made tapioca balls.

The cobots’ capability of working in close proximity with humans maximized space and efficacy while ensuring safety. Additionally, the UR5 cobot can be installed easily and deployed in a physical store or a temporary venue, making it a perfect fit for a pop-up store, a business model for festivals embraced by the Taiwanese food and beverage industry.

Another example is a robot café, Café BOTBOTBOT located in Seoul, created by T-Robotics, a robot company based in Korea. The café is a complex cultural space utilizing media art where robots and humans can comfortably blend in. T-Robotics leveraged UR3 and UR5 cobots to help human staff efficiently respond to the needs of customers while making hand drip coffee, decorating cakes, and mixing cocktails that usually take time in preparation.

The café introduced Dripbot, Drinkbot, and Dessertbot. Dripbot drips coffee with the right amount at the right temperature. Dessertbot draws on top of desserts. Drinkbot makes cocktails for customers. Similar to Babo Arms, the UR cobots carry out repetitive routine tasks on behalf of human workers at Café BOTBOTBOT, improving customer service, productivity and quality.

Collaborative robots are making dramatic inroads for applications in the food industry, giving manufacturers and restaurant owners the advantages of optimized production, increased competitiveness, and the opportunity to free skilled labor for more appropriate tasks.

With the ongoing pandemic measures, food manufacturers and F&B outlets are facing more challenges now than ever. Automation and cobots can lend a hand to jumpstart business processes while improving the bottomline.