During the pandemic, direct-to-consumer meal kit sales skyrocketed as consumers sheltering in place took advantage of the door-to-door convenience and nutritional variety that meal kits offer, saving them a trip to the grocery store and time spent preparing meals from scratch. Those sales continued long after the pandemic ended, with worldwide meal kit revenue expected to grow past $17 billion in 2023 and forecast to exceed $25 billion by 2027, according to Statista. By 2030, that number is predicted to reach $64.4 billion.
Based on those robust projections, it’s not surprising that Intelligent Foods, one of the country’s largest meal kit companies, has expanded operations to grow its customer base. Intelligent Foods has the brands Sunbasket, Gobble, and Prüvit under its umbrella, and also handles contract work for other meal kit companies in Intelligent Foods’ two processing facilities in California and New Jersey—96,000 and 140,000 sq ft, respectively.
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“During Covid, the meal kit space became overpopulated,” says Ramiro Gomez, general manager of Intelligent Foods West, who started at Sunbasket in 2017. “We needed to find a way to be more competitive in acquiring more customers, so we decided to manufacture not just for our brands but for multiple brands, which allows us to compete for a bigger market share. Now, other meal kit companies can use our manufacturing assets, which helps them save money by not having to buy those assets themselves.”
As Intelligent Foods expanded its production plants to accommodate new business, their need to assemble a wide variety of orders faster and more accurately was vital, especially while trying to navigate the ongoing labor crunch impacting the industry. To help solve this challenge, the company turned to automation, and Chef Robotics’ AI-enabled CR3 flexible robotics system, enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) for high-mix food manufacturers. Intelligent Foods puts the robots alongside employees on the line, all working as one to fulfill a steady stream of orders.
“Making meal kits and assembling ready-to-eat meals requires anywhere from four to 15 assembly lines running at once, depending on our workload,” says Gomez. “Chef Robotics was able to help us because there is a labor shortage. For example, between Sunbasket and Gobble, we’ll create about 36 different recipes in a week, and we don’t reuse the same ingredients, so that means quick changeovers are essential. Chef Robotics has a very simple system with a robotic arm that can accurately portion ingredients, and when one meal assembly is done, we just switch over a little piece of tooling on the end of the robot arm, and we’re ready to go. Compare that to a person on the line having to change their entire PPE every time, and it’s a lot less cumbersome.”
AI learning curve
The CR3 robot’s AI improves its pick-and-place accuracy the more it works with a specific ingredient or dish, so each successive run-through on the production line produces faster, more efficient results for Intelligent Foods. The company assembles about 150,000 meals a week between its two plants, and that’s not including private label business, Gomez says.
“We’re able to teach the robots all those different ingredients,” he explains. “Also, these robots are already pre-programmed to deal with a lot of different food types. The more our robots pick, the better they become. The Chef Robotics team can perform data analysis on a specific ingredient and make adjustments to the robot as well, so the pick accuracy improves over time.”
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Gomez adds that Intelligent Foods operates in an allergen-free environment, and during changeovers, “the robots are wiped down and the tooling arms are disconnected and sent through our validated sanitation process,” Gomez adds. “After that, we wipe down the lines, clean the robots, and then we swab them for allergen residue to verify nothing is there.”
Programmed for performance
Currently, Intelligent Foods has seven CR3 robots working with employees on meal kit assembly lines at its two production plants—three in California and four in New Jersey. Another reason Intelligent Foods chose Chef Robotics for its operation, according to Gomez, was the speed of installation and training for staff to use the robots—crucial when downtime is at a premium.
“Chef Robotics brought in a technician to train our people how to use the robots within a day,” he says. “Each robot has a touchscreen, so we pick an ingredient and it tells us what kind of attachment to put on the arm. Teaching the robot a new ingredient can be a bit more technical, where we add the new ingredient [to the database], pick the attachment, and tell the robot this is the attachment to use. It’ll grab the ingredient, and then we adjust placement of that ingredient along with the speed we want. After that, the AI starts gathering data and learns.”
Intelligent Foods’ three main brands each have a different food focus: Sunbasket is built around healthy, organic, California-style cuisine with chef-crafted recipes; Gobble is focused on fast preparation family-style meals; and Prüvit is a keto-centric meal service. With the ever-growing variety of foods and meal specifications Intelligent Foods produces for e-commerce and contract customers, Gomez says Chef Robotics solves current challenges while offering the simplicity to pivot quickly when the market changes.
“If we didn’t have Chef Robotics on our lines, we would be paying more for labor, and our changeover times would be longer. Chef Robotics offers a solution for today’s production problems,” he says. “When we looked at some other robotics companies, they were really focused on collecting data to build a giant AI infrastructure, and it was not a practical fit for what we needed on our lines. Chef Robotics gave us a simple pick-and-place system that we could use right away, and it doesn’t matter what size or variability the ingredient is, it can handle it.”