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Is automation key to success in a post-covid world?

17 August 2020

Our world has changed rapidly in 2020, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. So, is now a good time for food processors to move forward with automation as a strategic priority? Suzanne Gill reports. 

John Gray, Professor of Robotics and Systems Engineering at the University of Manchester and chairman of the Food Manufacturing Engineering Group (FMEG), has long described the food manufacturing sector as a ‘Cinderella’ industry – no one knows it is there or what it entails! He said: “Traditionally, governments have focussed more on environmental issues, agriculture and retail – with little interest being shown in what happens during the actual production of food.” However, the current Covid-19 pandemic has brought about a very rapid realisation that the entire integrated food network is vital to ensure the country continues to be fed during unprecedented events such as we have seen in recent months. “It has been a lack of any firm long-term contracts from retailers that has resulted in many sectors of the food industry remaining reliant on manual labour,” explained Gray. “With no contract to guarantee longer-term commitment, funding has not been available to enable production processes to be automated. However, I think that in the next 12 months there will finally be a focus on food manufacturing. Hopefully it has woken the Government up to the importance of food processing and the issues that face this vital link in the food supply chain.”

Gray is adamant about the importance of automation for food processor success. He said: “The world is going digital and food production needs to keep pace and adjust to the new requirements that this brings. For example, total traceability is becoming more important – not just of product contents, but of the entire process.” 

Continuing the argument for automation in food processing, Matthew Carr, managing director at Integrated Food Projects (IFP), highlighted the fact that the UK food market has traditionally been retail led. “Most food processors are on very short contracts with their retail customers which makes technology adoption, that could have a return on investment (ROI) of multiple years, a difficult argument to win,” he said.

So, what effect might the pandemic have on this status quo? According to Carr, the Covid-19 pandemic has acted as a catalyst for change, giving many retailers a more compelling reason to ensure greater supply chain resilience. Carr believes that, for food processors, the post-covid world will be a more segregated one, in terms of both process and operational flows, and he argues that this makes a much more compelling case for automation. He said: “Automation is now not just being considered as a strategic cost-saving opportunity. It is now also being considered as a solution to make processes more robust. IFP is already designing ‘post-covid’ influenced facilities that feature more space for automation and less people. The food industry must start investing in automation or it will need to make its facilities much larger to allow for greater social distancing of employees and this would result in a shift in the investment profile from equipment into buildings.” 
 
Continuing to highlight how the argument for automation will change, Carr went on to explain that, during the height of the pandemic, many retailers made the decision to simplify their SKUs to help manage peak demand. The legacy of this move is an acknowledgement that the complexity of their product  ranges has been too complex for too long. “I believe that one of the covid legacies will be a continued retailer focus on SKU reduction as this will give the bigger supermarkets an opportunity to start to really compete on cost with the retail food discounters. For the food processor it makes the argument for investment in automation more straightforward – longer runs of a smaller number of SKUs is what automation does best,” concluded Carr.

Potential benefits
Reiterating the importance of automation, Andy Macpherson, food & beverage industry manager at Festo UK, says that there has never been a better time for food processors to start to develop and implement automation strategies. The potential benefits of this could include:

• A reduction in manual processes that will enable social distancing and address labour shortages. 
• Increased flexibility, giving food processors the ability to more quickly ramp-up or reduce production in line with demand.
• Improved productivity, helping the UK to compete in worldwide markets while still maintaining high food safety standards.

While Macpherson agrees that the argument for automation has been made easier by the effects of the pandemic, he offers a word of caution: “When considering automation it is still important to think about how ROI is measured. It is also important that the entire supply chain works together to gain the full benefits that increased automation can deliver.” 

Macpherson believes that the areas most susceptible to disruption by unexpected events, such as have been encountered during the pandemic, are those involving manual sorting and preparation activities prior to packaging. “Once the food has been contained, automated handing operations are pretty well established and straightforward,” he argues. “So, the main challenges are in the automation of processes such as meat preparation, filleting of fish, soft fruit and vegetable handling, and fresh salad preparation. Automation of these processes would reduce the need for manual handling. Other focus areas are short production runs – for example where production of one product is only required for just a few hours. Traditionally, it has been easier to move people around the factory to complete such short runs, but because today’s flexible automation solutions can help reduce people movement it would now also offer the benefit of offering better infection isolation between different parts of the factory.”

Offering advice on automation adoption strategies, Macpherson believes a good starting point is to focus on the end goal and work out a strategy from there. “If your aim is to achieve a flexible ‘lights out’ fully automated factory in the future then you must first review where on this journey you are today. Can existing production lines be upgraded to provide you with valuable performance data? What additional automation steps can be implemented to take your production line towards Industry 4.0 levels of performance and flexibility? You might not achieve a full ‘lights out’ factory, but getting close could still achieve the fastest return for your business needs. By adapting existing automation, it is possible to quickly gain data which provides performance insights that can be used to increase productivity and reduce down-time caused by component failures.” 

A perfect storm?
Steve Arnold, business manager food & packaging at SMC Pneumatics UK, also firmly agrees that now is the right time for food processors to make automation a strategic priority. He said: “Several factors have conspired to create a perfect storm for food processors – a reduction in the availability of low-cost staff due to Brexit or Covid 19; increases in the minimum wage; demand for less waste in food production; and global concerns surrounding food safety. Fortunately, at the same time advances in automation technology, vision systems and artificial intelligence are making automation more affordable and simpler to implement than ever before. Automating some operations in the food factory can now also help reduce infection or cross-contamination risks, while helping to increase productivity.” 

Arnold believes that the primary areas that could benefit from automation are handling and packaging of finished products. He said: “Some manufacturers still rely on a human workforce to complete the secondary packaging of the food product – either into cartons or boxes prior to palletising. This is one area that lends itself to automation and the UK is blessed with a good selection of automated secondary packaging solution providers and systems integrators who can help to automate these processes.”
 
Arnold went on to say that food processors should not be afraid of automating: “An automation project could consist of a simple cartesian pick-and-place system or a box erecting machine and these are neither complex nor expensive. My advice is to start small, be specific on what you want to achieve and once the business becomes more confident about automation then start to plan a move up to the next level of technology adoption.”

The role of automation
Lauren Moir, International marketing manager at OAL, says that the Covid-19 pandemic has most certainly made the argument for automation in the food industry easier. She said: “Food manufacturers have had to meet increased demand with fewer staff while also needing to implement social distancing measures across their processes and factories, to protect staff. It has quickly become clear that automation has an important role to play in helping manufacturers continue to deliver the required volumes and keep their employees safe.” 

Moir pointed out that, by investing in fully automated manufacturing systems, food companies can mitigate the impact of labour shortages and improve profitability at the same time. To do this, however, the traditionally complex, labour-intensive manufacturing processes must be converted fully to automated operations and critically this means matching the full flexibility of manual operations, which can be challenging. Moir explained how OAL has successfully automated the manufacture of complex soups and sauce products with its APRIL Robotics food manufacturing system. “Using only a single operator, different soups and sauces can be made at rates of up to 6,000 kg/hr. A single person is now responsible for loading the system with raw ingredients and the rest of the process is fully automatic. This incorporates automating complex tasks including weighing, liquid dosing, mixing, heating, pasteurisation and cleaning. 

“Automation can simplify the tasks completed by operators, reducing reliance on highly skilled individuals. In this application people were traditionally responsible for assessing quality. Today, sensors automatically validate the product quality of every batch. By automating the process and simplifying human interactions, food products are made more consistently and safely, both in terms of the final product and protecting operators from unsafe environments.”

OAL has identified that, to achieve a ROI within two years, the first thing to consider should be where it is possible to remove operators to reduce labour costs. “We usually begin with a review of operations to find the areas where many people are doing manual tasks; if you can automate this, the labour cost reduction will soon justify the capital investment upfront,” she said. “Then it is a case of carrying out trials or a small test to prove that the technology will work before committing to the full investment.” 

Looking more closely
Unfortunately, automation has not always been at the top of the list of priorities for most food processors according to David Jahn, director at Brillopak. “It was the implementation of the living wage that prompted many food processors to take a closer look at automation. However, adoption wasn’t pervasive. While automation was an important consideration for many food processors, capital was still often not forthcoming. Brexit forced a change because it resulted in such a huge reduction in the availability of low-cost manual labour. 

“Today I think the need for the food industry to adopt more automated solutions has never been more important. Traditionally, automation has been seen as more of a tactical decision, but today it is becoming strategic – we are seeing more companies looking at how they could change their entire operation – by using automation as a tool for greater efficiency.” Why? Jahn explained that the new requirement for social distancing is making it harder to maximise efficiency simply by deploying more manual labour. Brillopak specialises in automated packaging solutions for meat and fresh produce. Its advice for those new to automation would always be to first understand the business objectives of an automation project, in terms of labour, efficiency and health and safety. “To minimise operational risk it is important to prove each step of the journey,” said Jahn. He went on to say that it is also vital to put a strategy in place first. Jahn’s advice is to look at the bigger picture – from goods-in to goods-out, storage etc – and build a phased strategy that helps reach a known goal over a period of up to four years – giving time to prove each step along the way. “Grow your automation alongside your capabilities,” he concludes.

Make it a priority
Robert Brooks, industry manager food and beverage for Omron Europe agrees with Jahn. He said: “The case for automation as a strategic priority is strong, especially given the circumstances of the ongoing pandemic. Companies in the food and beverage industry need to take a close look at new systems and technologies that can help reduce the workloads of employees and increase the quality of their processes and products which can help them to act in a more flexible and sustainable way.” 

Brooks advice is to look for smart and connected systems which combine 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. Explaining how automation can help overcome the challenges posed by the new requirement for social distancing while also improving safety and efficiency in the longer term, he said: “Food and beverage companies that want to prepare themselves for the future should now look at the opportunities and possibilities of innovative robotics, sensor technology and holistic automation approaches. Companies looking to automate production and processing lines should consider four key market drivers and perspectives – workforce, product and packaging quality, production flexibility and sustainability.” 

Brooks went on to highlight another challenge facing the food industry today – the need for more sustainable processes, including the materials used to package products and how the packaging is manufactured. Automation is closely connected to sustainability because it helps achieve efficiency by generating huge amounts of data. “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. “Food manufacturers can take the different variables, using data analysis to optimise the production lines. Other aspects that come into play when talking about sustainability include energy savings with technology already enabling very fast real-time data sharing between devices and controllers or point-to-point data collection which can help companies achieve their energy efficiency and sustainability goals.” 

“The first consideration when setting out on an automation journey must be for the existing employees,” concludes Brooks. “While robots really demonstrate their advantages when it comes to speed and accuracy, human colleagues can take care of business-critical issues, customer communication and daily individual tasks. When it comes to important considerations such as ROI for automation, companies should increasingly focus on releasing human labour to do value-added tasks. Automation can also alleviate issues relating to a lack of trained employees. Collaborative and mobile robots, working alongside their human colleagues, can assist in lifting or transporting goods, material and more while also fulfilling tasks employees cannot do because of distance or safety rules.” 

Conclusion
In conclusion, when it comes to automation, it would certainly appear that the Covid-19 pandemic has acted as a huge wake up call for the whole of the food industry.  Now really does seem to be the right time for the food processing sector to join the digital revolution to help streamline the entire food supply chain.


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