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Is it a good time to automate the packaging operation?

04 August 2020

Chris Bolton comments on the packaging challenges facing the food industry as a result of the Covid19 pandemic. 

Even before the coronavirus pandemic turned the world upside down food manufacturers were facing an ever-expanding list of challenges. No matter what product they supply, the pressure is now on for companies to change their approach and increase productivity levels if they are to remain competitive.

The food industry has shown great resilience and is adapting to rapidly changing consumption habits. While most restaurants, pubs and other businesses in the hospitality sector have been forced to close to slow the spread of the virus, supermarkets are thriving, especially the fresh produce counters, as people become more health focused.

Meanwhile, more people have switched to the internet to order their favourite meals and drinks. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that online grocery retailers had benefitted during the lockdown, and the proportion of online spending on food in April increased from 5.7% to 9.3%.

However, as lockdown restrictions are eased and more businesses come back on stream, food manufacturers will need to maintain capacity and improve productivity levels. Ultimately a change of approach to automation will be required, especially companies encountering problems with staff shortages due to the impact social distancing measures are having on business operations, exacerbated by workers taking time off if they are self-isolating due to Covid-19. Dealing with a reduced workforce, along with required social distancing measures will be challenging. 

Missing a trick
Food manufacturers keeping faith with manual or semi-automatic processes are missing a trick and alternative solutions should be considered. The benefits of automating the packaging process are clear, helping the food industry to manufacture at the required capacity, with less operatives than a manually fed system which will reduce the risk of contamination as well as counter-balance the effect of social distancing requirements. Even post pandemic the food industry will need to address a dearth of labour from Europe following revised migration rules, dearer material costs and ever-increasing higher standards imposed by big and demanding customers. 

Companies must adapt to keep up and the natural next step for many should be to consider flexible, labour-saving technology that will free up staff to work in more productive roles. Many food processors are already thinking along these lines and PFM has seen a surge of interest in its  packaging machines. 

To speed up the delivery process during the pandemic, PFM has introduced PFM Bridge in the UK, a facility for carrying out pre-delivery inspections and demonstrations remotely, allowing customer sign-off before the machine is shipped and installed, again remotely through video links to enable customers’ staff to get their equipment up and running on site very quickly, usually with just a couple of phone calls for guidance.

This flexible approach has been launched as manufacturers’ production lines are being re-purposed to meet rapidly changing consumer demands. Many of our customers have changed their supply – in some cases, ranges have been reduced to allow larger quantities of the leading lines to keep supermarket shelves stacked with the most popular brands. 

However, smaller food producers may be averse to change due to costs and even the risk of any impact on their artisan perceived products. Although they can be reluctant converts, automation will allow for an uplift in speed, boosting the efficiency of packaging operations, which, in turn, can help address the challenges of managing variations in demand and finding more labour.

A lockdown installation
Bandon Vale Cheese, for example, is a producer of pre-packed products, ranging from cheddars to bespoke blends and mixes. Now part of Bandon Co-operative, the company has just purchased an additional Vetta bagmaker during lockdown. Despite the challenges, PFM was able to supply it in just over a week and it was installed by PFM’s engineers remotely in a single weekend. This latest Bandon Vale Cheese order follows on from the recent purchase of a complete system taking cheese shred from a tumble drum to a sixteen-head weigher which discharges into two Vetta II bag makers, vertical form, fill and seal machines that will produce stand-up pouches with a zip reclose and also standard Pillow Pack. 

The Irish cheese producer says that automating its packaging processes has led to significant growth while still allowing the company to maintain a niche quality, remaining small enough to cater for individual demands, yet keeping costs competitive and excellence high.

Manufacturers of all shapes and sizes can confidently navigate their way through a crisis and come out the other side successfully in an increasingly competitive market by investing in innovative automation solutions, which can be tailored to meet their requirements even if they want to remain small enough to retain a niche character.

Rather than viewing automation as a threat or financial risk, the rationalisation it can bring to food manufacturing presents one of the greatest opportunities for the growth and long-term stability of the industry and allows producers greater flexibility to respond to market trends.

Chris Bolton is sales and operations director at PFM.

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