14 California Food Producer EDITION 2, 2017 These aren’t the only robots playing nice with water. Water- jet technology has been used to cut everything from pickles, cheese and even stringy celery, to metal, stone and glass. Couple that with robotics technology and you have the icing on the cake. More on this later. SOFT ROBOTICS MEETS PRODUCE PACKAGING Another innovation garnering rave reviews in the food space is a unique gripper based on soft robotics tech- nology developed by the Whitesides Research Group at Harvard University. “Our mantra is things that vary in size, shape and weight, or are easily damaged,” says Soft Robotics CEO Carl Vause. Already gaining fans in the industrial packaging and e-commerce & logistics spaces, Soft Robotics was demoing its adaptive gripper at Automate in April 2015 when a showgoer asked if they could do anything with food. “Automate was a watershed event in every way and shape possible,” says Vause, noting that the booth visitor men- tioned a fresh produce trade show called United Fresh which might hold some potential. “That was in June of 2015, so we quickly built a produce demo system, shipped it to United Fresh and showed a robot handling strawberries and tomatoes live on the show floor.” Soft-actuating robot gripper handles fresh produce of every size and shape. (Courtesy of Soft Robotics Inc.) That’s when Soft Robotics met Taylor Farms of Salinas, California, one of North America’s largest vegetable producers. The seed was planted and a partnership grew. Taylor Farms, a third-generation family business with CEO Bruce Taylor at the helm, is now both a customer and an investor in Soft Robotics through its investment arm, Taylor Ventures. “Bruce Taylor is seen as a huge innovator in this industry,” says Vause. “For years, he’s been a leader in the Central Valley and has worked to bring the fresh produce industry along. He’s very concerned about the labor problem and the safety problem. He believes that the produce industry needs to start looking at advanced technologies.” We joke about the $7 apple, says Vause. But in reality, fruits and vegetables could become so difficult and costly to produce and keep up with worldwide demand, that they become scarce and too expensive for the masses. Taylor Farms produced this video for the Forbes AgTech Summit in June featuring the Soft Robotics gripper aptly handling a variety of packaged produce. Coupled with a vision-guided robot, such as the ABB Robotics IRB 360 FlexPicker shown in the video, the Soft Robotics gripper is both adept at primary packaging (direct or incidental food contact) and secondary packaging. “For example, take a head of Romaine lettuce in a plastic bag. We’re able to do secondary packaging of those bagged products into cases at higher speed and reliability than traditional suction cups,” says Vause. “When you’re thinking about moving things that are maybe wet or have particu- late matter on them, or where a suction cup can’t get a good grasp, that’s where our technology works very well. “Then if you have things of varying size, like small, medium and large bags of celery on the same packaging line, we can do all of that without any tool changers,” he adds. SOFT TOUCH FOR SENSITIVE FRUITS The Soft Robotics gripper has also been used to automate tomato sorting, a traditionally labor-intensive process. “Anyone using tomatoes has to sort them on a regular schedule to find the ones that are at the same level of ripeness to ship to their customers,” says Vause. “They sort by size and color. All of that is done by hand today. We’ve been able to show that we can handle these tomatoes with a robotic system at speed with reliability.” Tomatoes aren’t the only sensitive food products ripe for the picking. Soft Robotics is reaching deeper into the supply chain. We’re talking to berry farmers right now,” says Vause. “Twenty percent of the strawberry crop in California in the last two years has been left in the fields due to a labor shortage. So there are two or three different companies trying to automate the harvesting challenge. We’re working with them for different technology approaches. I think it’s a great opportunity.” JMP has also developed an innovative robotic washdown solution for selective clean-in-place applications. The patent-pending system not only uses robots to wash the conveyors and surrounding equipment, but also each other.