From farming to fast food, automation and robotics will define food production and delivery in the future. Here’s how they can affect your business in the coming years.
There's no doubt that the use of robots in the food industry is going to become more and more prevalent. This technology is already making a difference at various stages of food supply and production both in Australia and internationally with fully automated farming not too far away, and robot butchers carving 600 carcasses an hour.
Its advocates argue that robotic technology has the potential to increase productivity and profitability, and affect sustainability with computer-aided analytics and control engineering methods.
There can be little doubt of the revolutionary potential of robots in the food industry, from large-scale agriculture to how food reaches your plate.
Driverless tractors are already being used on large farms around the world, while drones are assessing crop and soil health. Ground sensors are monitoring water and nutrients in the soil and then triggering irrigation and the application of fertilisers.
While the Ladybird, an 'agbot' developed at the Australian Centre for Field Robotics (ACFR) at University of Sydney, is principally used as a monitoring and evaluation device, it can also distinguish weeds from crops and apply weedkiller accordingly. Its developer James Underwood see this small robotic device as potentially taking on the work of humans when the farming sector faces workforce instability.
The anticipated importance of farming robotics is borne out by the establishment in 2016 of the Horticulture Innovation Centre for Robotics and Intelligent Systems (HICRIS) as part of the ACFR–a $10-million investment in the research and development of agricultural robotics.
In the fast food industry, robots perform a range of tasks. A young engineering student in Pakistan has developed a robot waiter to work in his parents' restaurant, in China, "machine people" wait tables and Pizza Hut in Japan has robots taking orders and processing payments.
In 2016, McDonalds CEO Steve Easterbrook stated he had no plans to replace human counter servers with machines. For him, robotics will allow human workers more time for to devote to customer service and relations. So it seems that robots are more likely to be flipping burgers and conducting cooking tasks than interacting with customers. Flippy a burger-cooking robot in California made headlines last year, and the restaurant chain CaliBurger hopes to roll out robots in 50 more restaurants by 2019, claiming the system prepares food "faster, safer and with fewer errors".
Food delivery services
A pizza-delivering robot is already a reality in Australia, after Domino's experimented with its DRU (Domino's Robotic Unit) for deliveries in Brisbane in 2016.
Robotics are also proving an option for food delivery services in hospitals. Automated delivery could ease the burden on staff at Sunshine Coast University Hospital, where robots are set to bring meals to patients.
The question of whether robots will ultimately replace humans in the food industry will vary between different sectors. Robotics in agriculture is nothing new, yet technology is accelerating at such a rapid pace that we could well see manual work in farming fall by the wayside within decades.
Robotics could well become integral to fast food supply in the future and staff members will need to be trained and upskilled – although customer service, still arguably valued above all else, looks like it will remain in the hands of humans for a long time yet.