Robot technology will continue to make inroads into processing plants, albeit slowly. But the future will see robots and humans working closely together, even in meat and poultry plants, as safety and environmental concerns are solved.

That’s the assessment of Jeff Burnstein, president of the Robotics Industries Association, which is headquartered in Ann Arbor, Mich. He says that in-plant conditions in meat and poultry operations – harsh washdowns, high humidity in slaughter plants, the corrosive effects of salt and other ingredients – will remain difficult issues for robotic technology suppliers to overcome, but the growing use of robots in a wide variety of industries is helping provide answers to such problems.

"The technology has moved well beyond the auto industry, which is what many people associate with robotics in manufacturing," he told "There’s robot technology now being used in medicine, in many parts of the food industry – in just about every industry, in fact." He notes that as robots have moved beyond applications such as automobile construction, so they’ve also become smaller and more versatile. "They’re not all big anymore, with big swinging arms. There are a lot of smaller robots with smaller payloads being used in specific situations. The footprint has definitely changed," he commented.

He gives the example of Pepperidge Farms, the cookie manufacturer, which now uses robots to collect, stack and place "Milano" brand cookies into paper nests that are then stacked inside retail packages. "That’s a fairly delicate process," he noted. "The cookies are fragile, as are the paper nests. It’s also fairly complicated and involves vision technology to work right, but these robots are handling the function extremely well."

He sees humans and robots working closer together in the future. "There’s a lot of work going on in that area right now. The problem has been safety – but perhaps not in the way you might think," he said. "What happens sometimes is that people override the robotic safeguards. But some companies are developing new kinds of robots that don’t need to be behind protective screens, which enables a closer working relationship."

Writing in Robotics Online earlier this month, Burnstein emphasized that robots seem to be turning up everywhere. "Korea, for instance, is taking the lead in promoting the use of robots for service applications such as elder care. The United States is taking the lead in using robots to protect soldiers on the battlefield. European companies are taking the lead in using robots in the manufacture of solar panels," he wrote. "There is so much global activity occurring in robotics that one can’t help but be excited about the long term potential, despite the current global economic crisis."

Food safety is an area ripe for robotic application, he thinks. "Many foodborne illnesses are caused by people coming into contact with the food. The fact is that robots are cleaner than people. As a result, we’re seeing more of them used in the production and packaging of food. And, going forward, we’re likely to see robots handling food in restaurants (we’ve already seen examples of robotic sushi-makers!)," he predicted in the Robotics Online column.

"I’m not a big predictor, actually," he told "And in complicated industries like meat and food, it’s difficult to make firm predictions because trends aren’t necessarily related to technological development but to regulations and in-plant conditions." That said, he believes more use of robotic technology, not less, is the unstoppable overall trend in manufacturing and processing. "It has so much to offer," he said, "and provides efficient solutions to difficult problems."