Rise of the machines: will a robot revolution overthrow food manufacturing as we know it?

With Ocado announcing a deal to build a robot-run warehouse for a French supermarket group that will offer 50,000 foods, is a technology takeover coming? 

5 December 2017
equipmentmanufactureonline shoppingsupermarketstechnology
image credit: Besjunior/iStock/thinkstock.co.uk

The facts

  • With 1,000 robots, Ocado can put together a shopping order of 50 items in five minutes
  • The robots can travel at 4 metres per second
  • Ocado has experimented with drones for kerbside drop-offs and last year delivered a packet of popcorn

Fancy a meal created by a robot? Or some 3D-printed food? This could be the way forward for food on the back of Ocado adding close to £1bn to its market value after convincing Casino, a French supermarket group, to build a fancy new warehouse. It will be similar to the one Ocado has already pioneered in the UK, which uses robots, automated conveyor belts, shuttles and cranes to pick up and carry food items.

The online supermarket currently fulfils on average 260,000 orders per week and employs nearly 1,000 tech experts. It has experimented with everything from delivery drones to robotic arms that operate gently enough to pick up eggs, glass bottles and cleaning products.

Take up of new technologies on the factory floor has been slow in food manufacturing in the UK. Nevertheless, Ocado predicts other grocers and supermarkets will soon introduce robots once they become cheaper and more functional. Will a high-tech version of the world’s most famous robot, R2-D2, be rolling on out soon?

Robotic chefs

Targeting the ready meal market is a robotic chef named April, which was developed by automation specialists OAL and the University of Lincoln. April is designed to replace a human chef by creating meals with raw ingredients. OAL have also been working on mobile robots that are intelligent enough to self-navigate factories and robots that weigh out ingredients, just like a human.

Jake Norman, OAL innovation and marketing manager, tells Food Spark the Ocado announcement is really exciting, as this could be the key to changing the whole supply chain. He predicts food manufacturing will become ‘lights out,’ which means there will be no human intervention in the future. And the benefits are many.

“You’ve got the big cost reductions in terms of labour savings, which is quite often a driver for automation projects. We have done some work around shelf life, and what they have shown in studies is when lots of humans come into contact with ingredients, it shortens the shelf life due to contamination, so [robots] can minimise that,” he says.

Other positives include full traceability in the manufacturing process, minimal levels of food waste and improvements in health and safety.

While the UK is a challenging market, Norman is eager to see a new robotics food factory built. “There is a lot of cost pressure, and now you have Brexit as well, so there is a question over labour availability, and a lot of companies are hurt by currency swings, so to go and ask for £10 million to build a new food factory, it’s a difficult climate,” he says.

“But like all these things, if someone did do that, then you would imagine everyone would be forced to catch up very quickly. What’s happened with Google and Facebook is if you have more automated systems than everyone else, then your systems will outperform them, as you’re using more data to improve.”

Ocado has previously described the technical issues around controlling thousands of robots in real time, requiring a sophisticated, AI-based air traffic control system and a new communications program to talk to the robots 10 times a second.

Printed food

In the Netherlands, byFlow is producing 3D printers that can create more than 50 ingredients, including chocolate, marzipan, vegetables, fruit and meat. Its CEO, Nina Hoff, thinks 3D printing will catch the eye of multi-national food companies and will also tap into the personalised food market, for example, using vegetable ingredients to print dinosaur-shaped mouthfuls to encourage children to eat their greens.

Swiss chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut has teamed up with byFlow and is currently in the testing phase for 3D-printing chocolate, including experimenting with seasonal designs for Christmas, New Year and Easter.

Surely it won’t be long until a robot chef uses 3D-printed ingredients to make a meal, which is then delivered by drone, right?

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