SRT Grasps the Importance of Food Production Safety

Company looks to take bite out of $8.7 trillion food industry

SRT’s washable SFG-N series gripper has achieved the U.S.
and Japanese FDA food certification, as well as EU CE certification, EU RoHS certification, EU AP testing, German LFGB testing, US FDA testing, and Japan JFSL370 testing allowing direct contact with food without causing contamination.


by Henry Lenard

When George Whitesides talks, roboticists listen
Whitesides, the Harvard professor credited with developing the world’s very first soft robot in 2011, says that soft robot grippers have the potential to revolutionize the food production industry by eliminating germ-carrying humans from the process.


World renowned for the work he and his Whitesides Research Group have accomplished in pioneering soft robotics, Whitesides is in demand for his well-attended lectures on the future of such technology.

Roboticists had long worked to replicate the movements of the human hand in designing a gripper. Whitesides would determine that a human hand was not the best gripper to emulate, but rather the prehensile tentacles of an octopus. That led to his development of rubbery or soft grippers.

He spun a DARPA grant from 2008 into a private company called Soft Robotics in 2013. He perfected his soft grippers, sold many, and in January of 2020 closed on a $23 million investment from the likes of Yamaha, Honeywell and FANUC, the world’s largest robot maker. That was on top of a $20 million investment from 2018. 

He’s a great success, so it’s easy to see why his entertaining lectures on soft robotics are closely followed and thoroughly reported on. 

During one of his lectures, he said in an offhand way that food companies want to get rid of people in food production. A singular motivation for switching out humans for robots with soft grippers is, as Whitesides says, humans carry germs.


Whitesides hit upon a potential mother lode of robot gripper sales that, conceivably, could also spark mega-sales in cobots. And since there are only a handful of soft gripper companies selling their wares in the global marketplace today, Whitesides’ understated remark about food companies targeting people for an exit, is downright nuclear.


If you click over to the Cobotics World catalog of cobots and grippers, there are over 100 grippers, 99 percent of which are hard or rigid grippers made from steel. Nearly all are off chasing after the holy grail of robotics – automated bin picking – where there’s untold billions of dollars awaiting a robot solution.

Soft robot grippers can do a lot of what hard grippers do, but no hard gripper can do what soft grippers can do. And the food industry may well be their best chance for success. Want to pack a dozen eggs in an egg carton, bags of potato chips in a shipping box, or harvest apples without bruising them? Then don’t ask a hard gripper.


Look around, there’s hardly a business larger than the food industry. Plunkett’s Research says the global food and agricultural industry totals about $8.7 trillion, or about 10 percent of the world’s GDP. That’s a mighty big playground in which to ply the sale of a soft gripper.


That’s why Whitesides’ comment about humans and germs is so relevant. People transmit more than 70 percent of all foodborne illnesses, including such notorious pathogens as norovirus, hepatitis A, Salmonella, Shigella, and Staphylococcus aureus.


Pathogens of fecal, nose or throat, and skin origin are most likely to be transmitted by the hands, highlighting the need for effective hand hygiene and other barrier to pathogen contamination, such as no bare hand contact with ready-to-eat food.  


In the U.S., even with the passage of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011, the country still experiences hundreds of food recalls annually. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in six Americans contracts a foodborne illness every year


The most hazardous meat and poultry recalls (Class I) have nearly doubled in the U.S. since 2013, with an 85 percent increase. Class I refers to food that presents serious health risks such as containing botulinal toxins or undeclared allergens.

SRT's Food-Grade Grippers

Humans in the food production loop is a virus time bomb
One company that has heard that message and is poised to capitalize on the opportunities Whitesides sees in the food production industry is Beijing, China-based Soft Robotics Technology Co., Ltd (SRT). Established in 2016, SRT is an innovative technology company that develops full-process design, manufacturing, and related control technologies for soft robots. Its products cover industrial flexible fixtures, automation application equipment and overall solutions for automated factories. 

SRT holds 148 patents, including 10 international patents and 48 invention patents, as well as EU CE certification, EU RoHS certification, EU AP testing, German LFGB testing, U.S. FDA testing, and Japan JFSL370 testing. 

SRT has developed a line of four intelligent end-effector (i-EOAT) soft grippers, including its SFG-N series gripper made of food-grade silicone material. The SFG grippers are high temperature resistant and work stably in environment from -40 degrees C up to 150 degrees C. Its flexible pneumatic fingers can be adaptively wrapped around the target object, solving the problem of gripping and handling shaped and fragile objects.

SRT’s flexible gripper consists of a flexible finger module, a stand and a robot arm connection. For different shapes and sizes of workpieces, different types of finger modules can be selected, which can be reasonably matched with the suitable holder to flexibly grip and place the object.

The washable SFG-N series gripper has achieved the U.S. and Japanese FDA food certification, as well as EU CE certification, EU RoHS certification, EU AP testing, German LFGB testing, US FDA testing, and Japan JFSL370 testing and the EU AP certification, allowing direct contact with food without causing contamination.

The gripper adaptively wraps around the dough, providing stable and accurate grasping of the target object without dropping any of it, another requirement of the customer. Its operating speed of up to 90 CPM fully meets the needs of the production line.


Another example is a company that was looking for a solution for its egg dumpling production lines, where the items needed to be sorted and placed in cartons. The challenge is when the dumplings are removed from the mold, they are hot and very soft, posing a risk of burns in manual sorting.


SRT’s flexible SFG-N series grippers met both the necessary food-grade and temperature-resistant requirements of the customer. That allowed the company to solve both the issues of high-temperature grasping and protecting the egg dumplings from contamination and damage. The result was a more efficient, safer and cleaner automated food production line, while reducing labor costs.


Beyond its food industry applications, the stronger load force and gripping adaptability of SRT’s line of i-EOAT soft grippers make it suitable for many other industries. The intelligence of the end-effectors can guarantee the gripping speed while enabling non-destructive grasping of objects in production, which can effectively overcome the challenge of gripping and handling of shaped and fragile items.


The grippers have been used in semiconductors, 3C electronics, injection molding, auto parts, medical equipment and high-value medical consumables, as well as other fields.


SRT’s products are exported to nearly 400 customers serving 20 industries in more than two-dozen countries, including Japan, South Korea, Thailand, Canada, Malaysia, Singapore, France, Colombia, Spain, Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Portugal and Bulgaria, among others.


See also: SRT Intelligent Manufacturing Solutions Are Helping Food Industry to Realize Digital Production


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