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How to address the “new normal” of factory automation in food manufacturing

06 August, 2020

Food and beverage companies can now set the course for the time after the Covid-19 pandemic using automation to boost competitiveness and productivity. Manufacturers should focus their resources on four market driven perspectives: workforce, product quality, flexibility and sustainability. Smart Machines & Factories reports.

The corona pandemic has posed immense challenges to companies of all sizes across all industries. According to Deloitte Global, food and beverage (F&B) companies are facing significantly reduced consumption as well as disrupted supply chains. But how can manufacturers adapt their business strategies and production processes, factories and machinery to the new circumstances – both in terms of the pandemic and in the long term? The current crisis offers a chance to rethink out dated procedures and use automation with the aim to boost productivity, efficiency and quality. F&B 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. This project should consider four key market drivers and perspectives: workforce (employees), 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; plus monitoring and control technology, sensors and vision technology tailored to the respective production requirements. In addition, the various stakeholders and market drivers should not be considered in isolation, but as a whole and integrated into the future production strategy.

1. 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 Food and Beverage, commented: “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.” A simple 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.

Daniela Moles, communication expert at Omron Solution Partner LCS Group, explained: “We carried out a project where we implemented a fully automatic system for the handling of heavy rolls of fabric that weigh up to 30 kilos. These rolls were previously handled by humans. Automating this exhausting task meant that the company could support its employees while also boosting efficiency and productivity. The value of automation is in the mix of humans plus machines, robots and AI. Collaboration is key.” While robots show their advantages when it comes to speed and accuracy, human colleagues can take care of business-critical issues, customer communication and daily individual tasks. Regarding the important aspect of ROI, companies should increasingly focus on releasing human labour to do value-added tasks, which is absolutely crucial for producers going forward. Furthermore, automation can fill a lack of experts in the labour market. Collaborative and mobile robots working alongside their human colleagues to assist in lifting or transporting goods and materials while fulfilling tasks employees cannot do because of distance or safety rules.

2. 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. Regulations from international organisations like ISO or GS1 are widely adopted, but in addition there may be further project specific specifications driven by suppliers and customers. This leads to a need for reliable systems and tools that ensure a barcode is correct and readable. Additionally, solutions can be adapted so they can also check pack design aspects and package integrity and completeness. Alberto Giordani, product and project manager at Omron Solution Partner Alfacod, highlighted: “Moreover, innovative solutions can understand the quality grade and if it's decreasing before it's too late. They can therefore plan preventive maintenance actions to avoid potentially costly errors. In the food industry, it’s useful to check labels while they are printed by a thermal transfer machine with an integrated barcode verifier on the printer. Customers, especially large distribution companies, want to receive only products with the correct information, labelling and barcodes. If this information is wrong or incomplete, they might return the goods or levy a fine on the supplier.”

Information taken from the packaging in the form of codes is also becoming increasingly useful for consumers at the point of purchase. When reading the code at a self-scanning system or in the retailer, they can get information about allergens or other specific ingredients such as gluten. Furthermore, consumers are increasingly taking an interest in information such as country of origin and of course manufacturers want to engage with consumers via information provided on the item. There is a close link between automation and traceability [both internal and external to the manufacturer], ultimately protecting the brand reputation of the producer and reducing costs. Omron’s Robert Brooks added: “Another simple example is a verification solution using vision systems or RFID which, linked into the production management software, can help to reduce issues connected with false codes or labels.“

3. Flexibility as the engine of future food manufacturing

Whereas in other industries “batch size 1“ (also known as “lot size 1”) is one of the trending topics and a goal for manufacturers, the food and beverage industry is still very closely connected to volumes. But it should still be a priority to act in an increasingly flexible and agile way to fulfil growing customer demand and changing regulations. Mobile robots and flexible production lines provide companies with valuable support. Moles described an LCS customer producing coffee pods: “Our customer receives requests for very different pods, such as normal plastic or reusable, eco-friendly, different colours and different sizes. By implementing a fleet of Omron’s mobile robots that can manage the fluctuating demand across periods of time or two entirely different requests, we were able to help them to achieve a more flexible environment within the plant. Being able to adapt and evolve will become even more relevant and important in the future.“

Many solutions still rely on inflexible conveyor systems, whereas mobile robots provide the manufacturer with the flexibility to move stock and consumables to the required locations at the right time. Furthermore, cobots are very easy to train, easy to deploy and transportable, making them a useful companion in achieving more flexibility. Additionally, mobile robots can change routes quickly, dynamically avoiding obstacles or working on different priorities. They can be customised with special add-ons and accessories that allow for even more flexibility. In fact, the latest solution from Omron combines cobot and mobile technology to offer a mobile manipulator or MoMa solution.

4. On the way to sustainable food manufacturing

According to PwC, three quarters of supermarket customers want to buy products with as little packaging as possible, but packaging also protects the item and informs the customer, so it’s a balance between differing drivers. However, 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. Automation is closely connected with sustainability, a simple and widespread example being that it can control temperature and pressures, ensuring a product is correctly packaged and reducing waste and scrap. A more detailed example could be a scenario in which a producer must consider multiple variables such as packaging thickness, ambient temperature and packaging film speeds. This approach requires a system to capture data in real-time, analyse it and make decisions. “If we are able to process and read through this data, we have all the guidelines in order to work better and implement sustainable actions to achieve a sustainable future,“ explained Brooks.

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 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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