The impact of automation on the food and beverage industry
Types of automation
Automation is not new to the food and beverage industry. A type of automation, known as process automation, is common in production facilities all over the world. These solutions normally come in the shape of advanced machines that have an automation aspect to them. These machines are typically manned by staff, who feed it with ingredients during the inbound phase of production, which the machine then mixes, cuts or processes in a specific way.
Technology has significantly advanced since process automation solutions took the industry by storm. Nowadays, automation solutions are able perform manual tasks too, such as measuring, sizing up and packaging products which they can then handle, label, or set out in pallets.
End-of-line production encompasses processes such as packaging and palletizing, both of which show high automation potential. Boxes and pallets tend to be standardized across the industry, which has given rise to an array of mature, proven, and low risk automation solutions within palletizing that are able to stack, label and move the pallets across the production floor.
“Usually, we see significant potential for automation in end-of-line at most of the manufacturers we visit, with a positive business case within just 1-2 years”Mikkel Viager, Senior Robot and Automation Advisor at Gain & Co
Supermarkets often require products to be delivered to them in mixed-product display pallets in order to save on shelving space. Ten years ago, automation technology wasn’t flexible enough to handle the majority of cases, and only a few sites with very standardized packaging and products were viable for automation. In those that were not, mixed-product requirements could only be fulfilled by having workers positioned between two production lines, manually erecting and packing boxes and then moving from one production line to the other collecting and placing two different products onto one pallet. If one line was faster than the other, this would directly impact the productivity of these employees.
However, since then, automation technology has moved so fast that it is now possible for robot solutions to cater to supermarket demands and pack deliveries in mixed product pallets. These solutions can not only drastically improve employees’ working conditions and production line productivity, but can also lead to unexpected savings. Easy-to-erect boxes are more costly than the regular boxes that automation solutions are able to handle, for example. By automating their end-of-line processes, companies can drastically reduce how much they spend on their packaging.
Skill set change
There are many ways in which automating repetitive processes changes working conditions for the better, reducing the need for workers to carry heavy loads, improving safety conditions, and creating new job opportunities, allowing production line workers to put their skills to better use elsewhere to maximize productivity. Increased use of robots and automation in the processing and packaging means that new hires in production will either be more focused on the maintenance of the machines or will take on a more supervisory role.
Lately, the Covid-19 pandemic, looming retirements and EU-status changes have caused supply chains issues all over Europe, including a shortage of Heavy Goods Vehicle (HGV) drivers in the UK. Automating repetitive processes liberates workers that can then fill vacancies in supply chain areas threatened by worker shortages.
Areas needing further improvement
There are, of course, areas that need further development before off-the-shelf solutions become available for purchase. This is the case for the primary packaging phase of production, where the raw product is placed into individual boxes. When the product is not uniform in size, shape, or weight, this task becomes difficult for an automation solution to accomplish.
A good example to illustrate the above-mentioned point are tomatoes that are packaged while still on the vine. Handling this high-end product requires a high-risk technological solution, as there are no tested standards solutions available in the market and the task is highly complex. Even when the product is uniform, there is often some value in having this phase done manually so that quality checks can be carried out during it.