Can robots reduce food waste? Yes, but some help is needed

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Food packing robot

Can robots reduce food waste? Yes, but some help is needed

#HowToRobot -
Editorial team
Automation and robotics hold a large potential to minimize food waste by reducing errors from manual processes in food processing. However, more knowledge and guidance are needed to explore the possibilities.

Robotics technology has long been hailed for its ability to automate manual processes and increase productivity. An often-overlooked benefit of the technology, however, is how it can improve overall product quality, reduce errors from manual operations, and make sure less of the product goes to waste.

Within the food industry, this is particularly relevant: Every year, about 1.6 billion tons of food – or about one-third of the total amount produced – are lost or go to waste globally according to estimates from Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Automation and robot technology can contribute to solving this challenge by reducing waste from inefficient or error-prone processes in parts of the food supply chain. This not only helps reduce waste. It can also have a positive impact on the climate, as food waste accounts for roughly 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions according to UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. By reducing food waste, its carbon footprint will also diminish.

So, how big is the potential – and how can robotics technology help?

How automation can reduce food waste

Food waste happens at all stages of the supply chain: from farm to consumer. About one-third of food waste happens during the handling, storage, processing, and packaging according to BCG’s estimates. When process errors occur at these stages, it can lead to products being discarded. The further along the supply chain, the more carbon-intensive the wastage. Hence, minimizing food waste at the processing stage helps avoid “wasting” emissions caused earlier from production at the farm, for example.

By analyzing a wide range of food manufacturing facilities, HowToRobot estimates that for the average facility, at least 50% of the process-related food waste happens due to human error from manual involvement. Out of those manual processes, another 50% are automatable using currently proven technology, which means they carry a relatively low level of risk. When combined, this provides a 25% potential for reducing food waste from error-prone processes by introducing automation. The type of processes can vary from mixing ingredients to handling products, packaging, palletizing, and storing them at warehouses – to name a few examples.

This gives automation a broader perspective for food manufacturers. From being a tool to boost productivity and address labor shortages, it may also significantly contribute to reducing food loss.

The food and beverage industry is already automating to some extent, accounting for 3% of all robot installations globally in 2022 according to the International Federation of Robotics. However, the potential for growth remains significant. Analyzing several hundred manufacturing sites, HowToRobot finds that the average manufacturer has only explored about 5% of its addressable potential for automation using proven technology. To increase the level of automation in the industry, some of the technology adoption barriers must be addressed.

Key challenges to reducing food waste with automation

From HowToRobot’s daily conversations with production managers worldwide, it’s clear that most know they need automation and acknowledge the importance of reducing food waste. However, it’s also well-known that daily operations often end up taking priority.

Many food manufacturers are still new to robotics and automation. With limited expertise and knowledge about the technologies – and how they can contribute to reducing food waste, among other things – it can be a challenge to get started, especially for smaller and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

Taking the first step often involves guidance and support from people they know and trust. It may not be a surprise that more guidance and information on automation technologies were among the highest sought-after incentives to automate further (next to tax benefits), highlighted by 36% of manufacturers in a recent survey by Make UK. One thing is the advice you can get from a vendor selling automation solutions. At the early stage, businesses often need a broader, vendor-independent perspective. That’s why having access to impartial advisors is key to increasing robot adoption and uncovering the best opportunities to reduce food waste with automation.

Costs are also often cited as a barrier to automation in surveys. A solution can be to seek funding support. There are national funding programs available in some places to help offset investments in technologies that reduce environmental impact. To unlock these opportunities, it is not enough to have a general idea of the potential. Businesses will need more specific knowledge about how automation technologies can reduce food waste from their operations. This would include getting an overview of where the potential lies – and then analyzing it and finding potential solutions to build a business case.

There is plenty of potential for automation to reduce food waste – but more knowledge and advice is needed to ensure the technology is used for the greatest benefit.