How to use factory automation to plan for the ‘New Normal’ in food manufacturing

Food and beverage companies can now set a course for a post- pandemic world using automation to boost competitiveness and productivity.

Manufacturers should focus their resources on four market driven perspectives: workforce, product quality, flexibility and sustainability. 

Automation in food manufacturing
Looking to the future, with the additional experience of the Corona pandemic, companies in the food industry are now called upon to take a close look at new systems and technologies that will help them to reduce the workload on employees

Opportunities and possibilities with automation

The current crisis the world is facing offers a chance to rethink outdated procedures and to use automation with the aim to boost productivity, efficiency and quality. Food and Beverage companies that want to prepare for the future should be appraising the opportunities and possibilities that innovative robotics, sensor technology and holistic automation approaches provide. These types of projects should consider four key market drivers and perspectives: workforce, product and packaging quality, production flexibility and sustainability.

Automation in this context does not only mean robotics or artificial intelligence, but a well-thought-out overall structure of fixed, collaborative and mobile robotics; monitoring and control technology, sensors and vision technology tailored to the respective production requirements. The various stakeholders and market drivers should not be considered in isolation, but as a whole and integrated into the future production strategy.

Collaboration and factory harmony are key

The first aspect to be considered in this respect are the employees, the workforce perspective of factory automation. Robert Brooks, Omron Europe’s industry manager for Food and Beverage, comments: “At the moment, there are millions of people employed in these sectors. This number has an enormous impact on producers in terms of costs, but also primarily in terms of the health and safety of human resources. The pandemic has led to developments such as social distancing and tighter safety regulations that companies need to adhere to. Automation can help in overcoming this challenge while also improving security and efficiency in the longer term. “An example is a cobot or mobile robot solution that can relieve employees from challenging and repetitive tasks so they can focus on more value-added and fulfilling roles.

Product quality and traceability play an increasingly important role

Product and production quality as well as traceability are further aspects that are increasingly important for both manufacturers and customers alike. Barcode quality is one example that is a key element in many applications. This leads to a need for reliable systems and tools that ensure a bar code is correct and readable. Solutions can be adapted so they can also check pack design aspects and package integrity and completeness.  There is a close link between automation and traceability, ultimately protecting the brand reputation of the producer and reducing costs. Brooks adds: “Another simple example is a verification solution using vision systems or RFID, linked into the production management software can help to reduce issues connected with false codes or labels. “

On the way to sustainable food manufacturing

According to Price, Waterhouse and Cooper, three quarters of supermarket customers want to buy products with as little packaging as possible. Packaging also protects the item and informs the customer, so it is a balance between differing drivers. It will come as no surprise that flexible plastic or flexible packaging is still expected to grow in the future. For this reason, companies in the F&B industry must increasingly think about the materials they use for packaging their products. One good example for innovative technology is Omron’s Sysmac AI Controller, a smart Artificial Intelligence solution that collects, analyses and utilises data on ‘Edge’ devices within a controller to prolong equipment longevity and detects abnormalities to prevent failures. It combines control functions of manufacturing lines and equipment with AI processing at manufacturing sites in real time.

Real-time insights are driving the food factory of the future

Looking to the future, with the additional experience of the Corona pandemic, companies in the food industry are now called upon to take a close look at new systems and technologies that will help them to reduce the workload on employees, increase the quality of their processes and of products, and act more flexibly and sustainably. They need to look out for smart and connected systems, combining robotics, cobots, vision and sensor technology as well as strong data collection and analytical capabilities, human machine interaction and full traceability to provide them with real-time insights for a successful and customer-focused future.



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