Stepping up food industry automation — safely, softly, simply

The latest trend in the food industry is a move towards the automation of direct food handling. Automated food handling is associated with stringent regulations, and when it is unprotected food products and/or raw materials that are being handled in automated systems, the challenges are even greater.

The vacuum-based soft gripper piSOFTGRIP® can grip sensitive and lightweight objects of odd geometries and/or an unusual surface.

So, what do food manufacturers need to keep in mind when investing in new equipment for automated food handling, especially if what they want to handle is fragile and unprotected? We have put together a handy checklist:

Keep it safe

Hygiene is of course the number one priority for food manufacturers wishing to automate their direct food handling. Cleanliness and food safety issues are also some of the greatest challenges they face when choosing the right equipment. Whatever equipment producers use, it has to be easy to keep clean. The ability to withstand wash-down procedures is effectively a necessity.

Suction cups or gentle grippers made in detectable silicone approved for direct contact with food, in accordance with FDA and EU regulations, are the obvious choice. Add to that fittings with smooth design (no dirt pockets/traps) made in stainless steel, and the wash-down requirement is also fulfilled.

Going a step further, food manufacturers might opt for using parts made of silicone fortified with some antibacterial additive. Some producers might also include sensor equipment enabling the bacterial content to be monitored in real-time.

Keep it soft

Delicate food products such as pies, cakes or confectionary and fresh produce such as lettuce, tomatoes and soft fruit also need to be protected from damage by being crushed or roughly handled by the automated equipment. This places demands on equipment makers to design automation tools with a gentle, soft touch.

Vacuum-operated soft gripping tools are specially designed to handle items such as fragile food products with extra care. The combination of gripping fingers and a vacuum cavity enables delicate items to be held safely and securely without risk of damage. Being vacuum-driven, the gripping force is easily adjustable and controlled by the applied vacuum level.

Keep it simple

Unprotected food products need to be handled quickly and efficiently. Food must not be held up during production by inadequate components or complex procedures. Sharp edges and awkward corners in which dust and dirt can gather have to be avoided as far as possible.

Simple and straightforward equipment solutions will ensure a steady production flow with minimum downtime due to maintenance work. Equipment made up of uncomplicated, single piece components tends to be more robust and reliable, easier to clean and maintain. Uncomplicated equipment also tends to use fewer components, leading to less need for exchanges and upgrades.

Keep costs down

Generally a high volume business operating with low profit margins, the food industry is a particularly cost sensitive sector. Hence, producers have to keep a keen eye on not only the initial cost when investing in new equipment, but also on the running costs and other expenses. Cost effective solutions that provide a high return on investment (ROI) are essential.

Vacuum-operated solutions driven by compressed air and controlled by advanced multistage ejector technology offer food manufacturers energy-efficient and cost effective production systems. Not only inherently energy-efficient, the latest vacuum-driven systems also come with integrated high-tech operating functions for saving compressed air, resulting in minimum energy consumption.

Keep it light

With limited resources available, in terms of both space and robotics performance, food producers are inevitably looking for compact and lightweight automation solutions. Smaller and more nimble robots are also easier to fit into established production lines without necessitating major restructuring work.

Soft gripping tools and suction cups designed to be fitted to the end of robot arms need to be robust, yet lightweight enough not to add too much extra weight. This enables smaller and less powerful robots/machines to be used, as all of their power can be utilised to handle the food products. A compact format and a low building height also help to incorporate automated features in existing premises.

Keep it flexible

By stepping up automation in their production or processing facilities, food producers are hoping to reduce their operating costs, whilst at the same time securing increased overall productivity. With many and varied ranges of products, the food industry also requires flexible production lines.

Vacuum-based soft gripping tools have been developed to meet such demands. Designed to grip sensitive objects of odd geometries and/or an unusual surface, these tools are flexible and adaptable, enabling them to be used for many different classes of products. Often configured as “plug and play” extension tools, they are easy to integrate into existing production lines.

About Piab

Piab provides smart solutions for the automated world, helping thousands of end users and machine producers in e-commerce logistics, food, pharma, automotive and other manufacturing industries to improve energy-efficiency, productivity and working environments. With almost 500 employees and SEK 1,2 bn in sales 2018, Piab is a global organization, serving customers in almost 70 countries from a network of subsidiaries and distributors. By leveraging the ongoing technological development in automation and robotics, and targeting high-growth segments and geographies, Piab's vision is to become the global leader in gripping and moving solutions. For more information about Piab vacuum solutions for a diverse range of applications, visit


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This article is categorised as Intermediate  |  Published 2019-03-30  |  Authored by Johan Bengtsson