A gentle touch

One of the first robots to make several human-like motions, the mechanical knight, was designed in 1495 by Leonardo da Vinci. However, it wasn't until the 1990s, when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) invented Kismet, the world’s first sociable robot. Over the years, the packaging industry has been inspired by these humanoid robots in optimising productivity in the sector, leading to the creation of soft robots.

Traditional robots are commonly used for picking and packing applications at mass production level. However, applications that require a more delicate touch have still needed a human worker — until now. Thanks to the invention of soft robots, silicone or plastic machines powered by air pressure that manipulate their actions to fit different applications, more packaging applications are able to benefit from automation.

Soft robots differ from conventional automation as their silicone covered tentacle grippers can grasp objects that a bulkier counterpart would struggle with. The robot can estimate the dimensions of the object using cameras and sensors, allowing it to adapt its movements from the data to pick up objects and package them.

Food handling

Many food manufacturers are now using this technology in their packaging lines because of their ability to grasp and pack produce without creating damage that conventional robots would cause.

Online food retailer, Ocado uses soft robots to pick food for deliveries. Its automated warehouse in Andover, Hampshire uses robot pickers to ensure efficient handling of delicate foods. An air pressure controlled robotic arm carefully grasps produce, with less risk of creating waste, as the softer materials used in these robots prevent bruising of produce, unlike metal robots.

US food manufacturers, Taylor Farms, also uses soft robots to package its produce. Gripper end attachments on the soft robots handle delicate fruits and vegetables without damage.

Soft robots are versatile as manufacturers can program them to work with different product specifications, unlike conventional robots that can only do specific tasks. Soft robots also function without electricity, meaning that they can safely be washed, which eliminates ergonomic risks, making soft robots beneficial to food manufacturing plants.

Robotic technology has drastically changed since the design of the mechanical knight. If manufacturers fully invest in the development of adaptable, soft robots in packaging, it may go on to greatly benefit even more packaging applications.