Automating Food Manufacturing Plants to Enhance Production and Quality
Published by : Industrial Automation
Highly competitive retailers constantly squeezing down prices, rising raw material costs, and soaring utility charges in a labor-intensive manufacturing environment; why shouldn’t food manufacturers look towards automating their manufacturing processes?
Automating food production can reap many benefits. The ability to replicate the appearance and quality of a product with the minimum use of ingredients not only improves line efficiencies leading to bottom-line profit but also can potentially increase sales. At the same time, improving the traceability of raw ingredients will provide the added benefit of improved food safety. All of this sounds too good to be true, so why does the food industry lag so far behind other major manufacturers such as the automotive and pharmaceutical industries?
The problem facing a large section of the food industry is that line automation here is not the same as line automation in the car industry or the pharmaceutical industry, from where the vast majority of automation has evolved. In these industries, components or products are usually uniform in shape, size, weight, and texture and can be manipulated easily by artificial hands and placed exactly where they are required at speed and without damage.
Within the food industry, primary packaging processes requiring the manipulation of raw food into its initial carton or wrapper are difficult because many basic products or components of a product – whether it is pasta, sausages, tomatoes, cheese or potatoes – vary in size, shape, quality, weight, and texture, making it a formidable challenge for highly automated robots to manipulate them at the required line efficiencies and still maintain quality and integrity of the product.
The automation of raw food products also requires high standards of machine sanitation. This requires components that are easily accessible and can be dismantled for cleaning or washing with chemicals. Reassembly must be simple and quick, as the cleaning process may not necessarily be at the end of the shift – it could be for a product changeover where the previous product may have contained allergens such as nuts or celery.
Looking to the future
Research evidence suggests that huge opportunities exist within the food industry for automation to take place, especially within the primary packaging processes. As technology improves and the ability to manipulate complex and varying shapes becomes easier, further opportunities for higher levels of automation to take place will be presented.
For automation to be successful it should be approached as a four-way partnership, with the equipment manufacturers and their component suppliers challenged to design ergonomically sound components that are free from potential water traps and biological issues. This means a critical rethink of key component designs such as gearboxes, motors, and lubrication systems.
A further consideration for the harsher environment in which the food industries have to operate should also be a factor in equipment design, as these can often be in chilled, damp conditions created from constant wash downs and changeovers.
Reliability and flexibility are at the other end of the spectrum and is obviously a prerequisite for the equipment user, therefore collaboration with the user and their customers is essential to find ways of improving reliability and flexibility of the equipment.
Manufacturers need to be aware that food products and their packaging change constantly to meet ever-increasing customer expectations, and the technology must take this into account.
The needs of the food industry differ slightly from the industry norm, but they are not insurmountable. In the last five years or so there have been huge steps in automation and robot design that have taken most of these factors into consideration. There has been an emergence of a wide range of standalone robots, with fully hygienic pick and place capabilities that in theory appear to be able to handle a wide array of raw ingredients.
For the manufacturer of such technology, the future of automation for the food industry looks very promising indeed.