Food factory automation 101: Our guide to automation in the food industry
Automation technology has come a long way in recent years. From advances in robots to the application of industry 4.0 in new sectors, organisations are embracing automation. Robotic technology considered “experimental” just a few years ago will soon be commercially viable for even small manufacturers, and it’s expected that increasing numbers of food and beverage producers will adopt new technologies as part of a global shift towards their use.
In this article, we’re explaining the advantages of food factory automation, potential pitfalls, and how best to implement new technologies in your food factory.
What is food factory automation?
Food factory automation refers to the use of automated processes within a food manufacturing environment. This can be anything from a relatively simple automated conveyor system operating on sensors, to hi-tech robots that are programmed to replicate human workers.
Examples of automation in the food industry include:
- MES systems
- Mechanical handling automation
- Automated picking and placing
- Automated batch processing
- Autonomous Mobile Robots (AMRs)
- Palletising processes
It’s a phrase you’ve probably seen thrown around a lot recently – especially when it comes to automation. But what does it actually mean?
Industry 4.0 refers to the idea that we are in a “fourth industrial revolution” which is characterised by the use of automation, Internet of Things (IOT)-enabled technology and a shift from a central control system to one where smart products define manufacturing processes.
In other words, it’s the digital transformation of our manufacturing industries, founded on data capture and analysis. Capturing this data makes it possible to analyse food factory performance, increase efficiency and uptime, and predict maintenance intervention.
What are the advantages of automation in the food industry?
Improved efficiency is often cited as one of the clearest benefits of food factory automation. When used correctly, automation can allow a manufacturing facility to move faster, with less room for error. Put simply, the more automation, the fewer points of direct contact, which translate to fewer opportunities for potential delay, quality variability and downtime.
In an industry where margins are tight and operating at speed is essential in order to meet customer demand, having the flexibility to increase line speed and run 24/7 without increased wage costs can only be a positive.
An answer to the skills shortage
A common misunderstanding is that food factory automation replaces human workers completely. While it’s true that there won’t be as many workers required for an automated production line than a traditional manual line, in some cases labour-saving technology can preserve and create work. For example, if automating production makes a product cheaper and faster to produce then demand will increase, and more human workers will be required as production facilities expand – not just within the factories themselves but throughout the supply chain. As with the Industrial Revolution, jobs will change and new types of skilled roles will emerge.
However, in light of the increasing global skills shortage we are facing, it’s undeniable that being able to fill the gap Brexit and the pandemic have left is beneficial. According to an August 2021 report, the food and drink sector had in excess of 500,000 job vacancies. The National Pig Association (NPA) reported approximately 10,000 vacancies across all processing sector roles, with vacancy rates in pork processing plants of 10–15% on average, and there are similar stories in food processing plants across the UK.
With less room for human error, automating your food production facility ensures a more consistent product. It will also be much easier and quicker to identify issues in the production process as automation allows for full end-to-end traceability. This means you will be able to track goods throughout the supply chain journey, then pinpoint these contaminated ingredients along your production line to isolate the issue, minimising risk to your customers and protecting your brand.
One benefit of food factory automation that is often forgotten is the improved adherence to regulations. When new laws and regulations are introduced, there will be no increased workload for production line employees as automated processes can handle it. There will also be less costs associated with carrying out additional training.
A recent example of this is the UK Food Information Amendment (Natasha’s Law), which came into effect in October 2021. Comprehensive new labelling requirements were introduced following the tragic case of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died as the result of an allergic reaction caused by undeclared sesame seeds in a Pret a Manger pre-packed baguette.
In an automated facility, the additional workload required to implement procedures which comply with the new law is minimal. There is less room for human error and no need to hire additional workers to maintain line speed.
Automation in the food industry is closely associated with sustainability. Innovative new vertical farming processes (link to article) can help us grow more crops whatever the climate, while having greater control over waste, temperatures and packaging can reduce costs and increase line efficiency. Automation can also improve factory supply and demand management, with ERP systems providing accurate real-time data and avoiding issues with over-supply.
Where do robotics and automation in the food industry fall short?
While there are undoubtedly advantages of automation in the food industry and new technology advancing all the time, there are still areas of concern. Automation is still making big strides forward in what it can do and cope with but it has to be justified in cost by either removing people or increasing through-put to a sufficient level to be viable.
Not understanding existing production line parameters
It’s essential to have an in-depth, holistic understanding of a food factory in order to successfully introduce automation. Not doing proper feasibility studies can result in a system that isn’t fit for purpose, impacts product quality and ultimately costs your business money.
For example, if we consider the automated packing of a cream sandwich biscuit like a custard cream. If the biscuit shells are too hot, the deposited cream will shear and slip. This means the biscuit will be the wrong shape and unsuitable for the flow wrapper. Conversely, if the shells are too cold, the cream will not adhere to the biscuit, and it will fall apart. A human worker can simply look at and feel the biscuits to identify the ones that won’t flow wrap and discard them but this situation is much more complicated for an automated process to deal with.
So what’s the solution? We could look at using vision and pressure sensors, but it may be more cost effective to improve the existing upstream processes and/or maintenance to ensure there are less problem biscuits getting through in the first place. Another option is to redevelop the product completely so it is more tolerant of temperature ranges.
The problem has a solution but it’s important to take a wider view of the product needs to assess the best value option.
Collaboration between automation and human workers
There are still areas where automated processes simply cannot completely replace humans.
A good example of this is palletising boxes and cases. In nearly all situations these cases need to have top and bottom flaps correctly taped or glued. Often this is an automated processes but it doesn’t always work in practice. Operators on certain shifts might impose their own preferences, or there may be issues with maintenance. Manual palletising means people are there to see the cases that need attention and put them to one side to deal with later, including ensuring the right batch coding is applied, whereas high-speed robot arms simply can’t deal with them.
The solution is to train operators in the right setting and carry out continuous improvement activity to reduce the issue. In this example it could mean assessing the condition of the equipment to reduce the number of problem cases. Trying to use sensors to detect the open flaps is not straight forward as there are many degrees to which the flap could be open and they may not all be detectable – bottom ones held closed on a conveyor are particularly difficult to detect.
In a large system where we encountered this very issue, we conducted assessments of the upstream machines and operator training, then devised a simple vision system and look-up table that measured volume of shape. We used this to compare against reference information through barcode scanning. Cases that didn’t match were rejected for manual intervention.
How FEG can help
As we’ve highlighted in the examples above, it’s essential to undertake an in-depth analysis of your facility in order to introduce cost-effective automated processes that work for your business.
At FEG, our specialist automation engineers don’t just know about technology and equipment – they have a deep understanding of how it can be applied in real food factories to ensure success for our customers.
We offer a turnkey service, from feasibility to design, build, installation, testing, commissioning, and ongoing support. We also offer comprehensive training packages from management to operator level.
We are comfortable with both new-build and retrofit solutions and can support and fit into your team wherever required throughout the full system life cycle.
Our inter-vendor experience and knowledge of various sectors, including manufacturing, automotive and food allows us to remain objective and honest in our dealings with clients, holding our programming skills for the industry in-house through our specialist automation engineers.
Our specialist automation engineers can help. Talk to us about how we can support your food factory automation project today.