How Automation Tackled a Tough Tomato Handling Project

Many companies in the food industry deploy automation technologies such as robots to help improve productivity, fill the gap created by labor shortages, or remove people from repetitive or dangerous tasks. Automating certain processes can create particularly difficult challenges, however. Take a tomato sorting and packaging process, for example. While it’s possible to automate such a process, doing so requires the right combination of technologies and expertise.

Manually sorting and packaging fresh tomatoes while avoiding bruising, scuffing, or gouging their delicate skin requires especially careful handling. Thanks to a unique combination of EyePick’s artificial intelligence automation software and the dexterity of Soft Robotics’ grippers, a French food-processing company can now use an automated process to sort.

The food-processing company’s packing operator had two main goals: ensuring the quality of its product by minimizing or eliminating any handling damages to the delicate tomatoes and successfully picking acceptable product and placing it into a container.

For the first task, the operator used a robot with a Soft Robotics’ two-finger food-certified soft gripper fixed to the arm of a collaborative robot (cobot) from Universal Robots. Soft Robotics’ patented mGrip gripper technology allowed the cobot to carefully pick up tomatoes and gently place them into a box, at great pace and without damaging them.

For the second task, the operator worked with EyePick — a company specializing in turnkey automation solutions for manual tasks using advanced automation technologies such as robots and machine vision. In this application, the robot uses 3D vision to recognize a healthy tomato, find the pick location, grab the tomato, and carefully place it into the parcel.

According to the operator, deployment of the AI software was a straightforward effort, and no integration issues were encountered. The robot can be operated by a person through an intuitive user interface and because the software and process are easily repeatable, the system is scalable. In fact, the operator has plans to expand its use of 3D vision-guided robots to more than 10 robots in the future.

With increased labor costs and high turnover in the food industry, advanced automation technologies such as 3D vision and soft grippers can help companies surpass existing solutions.

Compared to traditional solutions, the new generation of robotic automation offers a real competitive edge both in terms of technology and cost.

By using advanced vision-guided robot technology, the French food processing company expects to achieve a two- to three-year return on investment, proving its long-term value over manual picking and sorting operations.

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