The global food supply chain is facing significant challenges. From widespread staffing shortfalls, the war in Ukraine causing increased energy prices and grain scarcity, and rising levels of food waste, there’s a growing concern about food price inflation and potential shortages.
As a result, the demand for robotics has soared as a solution to many of the problems plaguing the food supply chain. Most in the industry have been investigating automation options for years. But, business solutions that were once just something to consider now have a greater sense of urgency.
Concerns about the necessity of maintaining our food supply chains have prompted many businesses in this industry to increase their investments in automation and robotics technologies. For example, Tyson Foods, producer of roughly 20% of U.S.-produced chicken, pork, and beef, invested more than $500 million in automation advancements in just the past three years.
Ongoing Challenges in the Food Supply Chain
The “supply chain” has become a hot topic over the past several years because we’ve figured out how much it touches everyone’s lives, from getting the gas we need at the corner station to buying staple food items. Companies and consumers worldwide have been impacted by supply chain disruptions - some more than others.
What we’ve learned with regard to the food supply chain is that things can be complicated. A typical food supply chain is made of about six stages:
- Sourcing of raw materials and ingredients
- Processing and packaging
- Wholesale distribution
- Retail distribution to consumers
If there are bottlenecks in any of these stages, the entire supply chain will be compromised. Some of the ongoing issues being faced by the food supply chain include:
- Rising supply chain costs — One of the biggest issues facing supply chain participants is increasing costs due to soaring fuel prices and labor issues.
- Lack of traceability — When businesses are unable to track food products through all stages of the supply chain, it can lead to inefficiency and mistrust.
- Inadequate communication — When supply chain partners fail to communicate, it can lead to excessive waste, inefficiency, and errors.
Driving Value in the Food Supply Chain
Businesses are increasingly deploying robotics to address many food supply chain challenges. Traditionally, robots have been used for addressing repetitive and routine operations. This is because it required complex resources for setup, so they weren’t agile enough to complete varying and complex tasks.
As robotics have become more advanced, they require less oversight and time to set up. In fact, many robots work side by side with humans. Some robots perform tasks that humans can’t do, shouldn’t do, or may not want to do. Some of the benefits of using robotics in the food supply chain include:
- Increase productivity and efficiency
- Reduce errors, risks, and re-work rates
- Perform mundane, lower-value tasks so human workers can focus on other jobs that can’t be automated
- Improve safety for workers in high-risk environments
- Boost revenue by improving order fulfillment rates, delivery speed, and customer satisfaction
- Improved employee retention through better safety rates and less emphasis on mundane tasks for humans
- Better overall business and brand reputation through the implementation of cutting-edge technology
How Robotics Are Transforming the Food Supply Chain
Robotics is a major part of the solutions to the issues that continue to plague the food supply chain. The food industry has been relatively slow to adopt robotics compared to some other industries. But this has started to change over the past several years. After all, pain is a great motivator. Here are some of the ways robotics are transforming the food supply chain.
Robotics in Agriculture
For the most part, the food journey begins in the agriculture industry. Precision farming, which involves using key interventions to improve and optimize productivity, is expected to be worth roughly $8.5 billion this year and $15.6 billion by 2030. Much of those gains will be due to robotics.
Farmers are now using robotics solutions for everything from planting to sorting and identifying seedlings. They are also investing in autonomous harvesters, weeding machines, and tractors. Autonomous ground vehicles and drones are also being deployed to analyze and monitor crops. When dealing with livestock, farmers are also using robotics to feed, milk, sort, and clean.
Robotics in Food Processing and Manufacturing
When materials leave the farm, they move to the processing or manufacturing steps. Robotics solutions are being used in food manufacturing in two primary steps:
- Primary processing — Raw food is cleaned, sorted, blended, and transported. Robotic applications include butchering and the sorting of vegetables and fruits.
- Secondary processing — Ingredients are combined to create new food products for packaging, cooking, and baking. Robotic applications include product sorting, removal of defective items, and mixing.
Because many of these processes are repetitive and similar to an assembly line, they are ideal candidates for robotics. In the past, many food processors focused on secondary processing, but more primary processing robots are becoming common.
Robotics in Food Packaging and Storage
Food packaging and storage are two areas of the food supply chain where robotics can make a significant impact. This is because these functions can be incredibly repetitive and inefficient when handled by humans.
On the packaging side, robots can pick and place items into individual packages, place tubes or wrappers of items into larger product boxes, and group food items together on pallets for shipping.
On the warehousing side, there are multiple opportunities for better results with robotics. Most warehouses already have a warehouse management system (WMS). These businesses can improve efficiency and visibility with things like automated storage and retrieval systems, aerial warehouse drones, and automated picking and packing using robots and RFID tags.
Robotics and Food Freight and Delivery
Transporting food products can be costly and inefficient. While we aren’t likely to see robots operating tractor-trailers or freight liners anytime soon, they are being used in this stage of the process. Some industry members are deploying last-mile robots as an effective food delivery source. For example, Nuro is currently running pilot programs with Kroger, 7-Eleven, Domino’s, and Chipotle.
And, how about food delivery to the customer’s table? Robots are handling those functions now as well. McKinsey & Company's analysis concluded that nearly three-quarters of food service tasks could be automated. You’re likely to see more and more robots handling some of these functions in your local restaurants.
Virtually every aspect of modern life has been disrupted since 2020, which means there are ongoing challenges for just about every industry. Everyone needs to eat, so the food supply chain is something that needs to run efficiently and with the utmost urgency.
Fortunately, businesses are leveraging various robotics solutions to improve efficiency, increase visibility, and even cut costs throughout the supply chain. Going forward, this can help supply chain participants achieve better overall results and add more stability to something everyone needs to survive.