Automation and Digital Technologies Transform the Food and Beverage Industry

July 13, 2022 by Stephanie Leonida

Automation and digital technologies in the food and beverage industry provide manufacturers with greater operational efficiency, improved worker safety, and higher quality goods for end-consumers. 

Introducing end-to-end automation (from product handling to palletization) in packaging can provide greater efficiency in processing goods, minimizing waste, and reducing manual process steps. This can save on a facility’s energy consumption and energy waste, as well as labor and material costs. Manual processes can incur variations in operational performance, but with automation, the connection between machines and processes can be enhanced in terms of speed and quality. Such enhancements can improve operational performance and contribute to overall plant productivity. 


Upward Farms automated solutions
With its new 250,000 square-foot facility in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, and a helping hand from Harpak-ULMA, Upward Farms intends to expand its sustainable farming. Image used courtesy of Harpak-ULMA


How can Automated Packaging Improve Food Production?

For Upward Farms, a vertical farming expert, sustainable farming, along with the improved speed and efficiency of food handling and processing via automation, could not be more important when getting perishable goods from pallet to plate. The company provides fresh, locally grown microgreens and sustainably raised hybrid striped bass to consumers throughout New York City, Westchester, and New Jersey. 

On June 30, 2022, a market leader in the provision of automated packaging solutions, Harpak-ULMA Packaging, announced its entry into a collaboration with Upward Farms. The latter company is working toward expanding its business with the current build of its new 250,000-square-foot facility, in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Harpak-ULMA will support Upward Farms in launching fully automated, scalable packaging operations to help Upward Farms grow its fresh produce and market reach.

Harpak-ULMA offers a range of packaging systems, from automated feeding, automatic loading, automated secondary packaging, advanced robotics for pick and place applications, automated palletizing, centralized line control, and tote/basket management. Individually or in concert, each of these systems offers manufacturers and end-consumers substantial benefits. The load and volume of production can be scaled up while quality control of goods can be maintained. Automatic loading of goods during primary, secondary, or palletizing stages can provide improved quality control through the use of AI, lower risk of employee injury, enhanced safety, improved data access through both HMI and data analytics software, as well as improved production speed.


Soft Robotics' mGrip soft gripper

Soft Robotics’ SoftAI Solution combines the hand-eye coordination of human workers and the accuracy and throughput of industrial robots. Image used courtesy of Soft Robotics


Soft Robotics

The collabortion between Upward Farms and Harpak-ULMA is just one example of the positive impact of automation and digital technologies in the food and beverage industry. Massachesusettes-based Soft Robotics Inc. also brings automation solutions to food and beverage. Their solution, SoftAI, uses three-dimensional (3D) vision (“eyes”), AI technologies (“brain”), and Soft Robotics' patented IP69K-rated, soft grasping (“hands”) to give industrial robots the hand-eye coordination of human workers. The ingress protection rating protects against dust, high temperatures, and high-pressure water. This is useful in the food and beverage industry, especially for cleaning machinery that has been in contact with food like raw chicken and needs thorough cleaning to maintain hygiene and food safety standards.

SoftAI Solution uses perception modules for its “eyes” to capture three 3D images of food products. The images are sent to the intelligence module (or “brain of the solution'') and instructions are then sent to the mGrip soft gripper (“hands”) which picks up the selected product. The SoftAI solution also provides real-time object tracking and integrated intelligent robot motion control to maximize pick accuracy and throughput. 


Innovative Automation

Automation and digital technologies are infiltrating the food and beverage industry through innovative vision systems, artificial intelligence-led robotics solutions, and greater machine-to-machine connectivity. This development can provide manufacturers and food producers with greater operational efficiency, improved worker safety, and higher quality goods for end-consumers.