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How Is Industrial Automation Changing Food Processing?


The industrial food sector plays a tremendous part in ensuring consumers have a wide variety of tasty, nutritious consumables. Many shoppers don’t fully realize the processing that such goods go through before reaching shelves, whether washing the food, chopping it, putting it into user-friendly containers or going through numerous other measures.

Decision-makers are increasingly interested in food processing automation. This category’s technologies can increase overall output, reduce errors and boost an organization’s profits. Here are some specific reasons why food automation investments make sense.

Increasing Food Safety

A significant part of food processing involves checking the products for objects that could pose dangers to consumers if they reach the market. One necessary measure involves checking for foreign objects. Industrial automation can achieve that task with impressive efficiency and accuracy.

One automated machine on the market increases object detection rates by up to 500%, plus handles 10,000-25,000 pounds of products per hour. It also captures and stores images of identified items. That data helps plant managers track problems and narrow down their causes.

Automation also helps create a more consistent environment that’s less affected by human error or carelessness. Research into bacterial outbreaks with identified origins showed that most contamination occurred when workers handled products with bare hands. Bringing automated systems into the workflow can reduce the overall number of people that work with processed products, minimizing the associated risks.

Incorrect labelling can cause food safety risks, too — particularly if the packaging does not alert customers to known allergens. These errors are more common during changeovers. Consider an example where two cereals look identical, but one is a gluten-free variety. Automated coding solutions can ensure each product has the correct label without human intervention.

Minimizing Equipment Failures and Downtime

Food factories feature critical equipment to keep operations running smoothly. For example, industrial chillers remove heat from an item or process. They’re crucial at multiple stages of food processing. A low-temperature chiller enables fast freezing of prepared foods, ensuring safe, tasty outcomes for the consumers who buy them. Such equipment also aids in storing bulk ingredients before use.

Other machines assist with packaging, such as by screwing caps onto bottles or arranging all containers in a box to have the same orientation before shipping. Regardless of the kinds of machines a food processing plant has, automated data collection strategies can reduce productivity losses due to equipment failures.

Moving Away From Reactive or Generalized Maintenance Approaches

Some common approaches to industrial maintenance either only react once problems become apparent or rigidly follow the recommendations in a manufacturer’s documentation. However, a reactive strategy can become prohibitively costly, particularly if an issue requires ordering expensive parts and paying for an emergency technician call-out service.

Moreover, a manufacturer’s guidance is generally reliable, but it doesn’t account for specifics in your plant that may necessitate repairs at different times than the suggested intervals.

Preventive maintenance is a more reasonable strategy because it identifies potential issues before they cause major outages. One way to automate it is to have an administrative system distribute alerts once particular usage milestones — such as service hours or the number of days since the last fluid change — are met. That approach avoids instances of people forgetting to schedule maintenance or believing doing so is someone else’s responsibility.

Companies could also apply food automation to predictive maintenance by using Internet of Things (IoT) sensors on critical equipment to automatically collect data. Plant managers can be alerted of excessive temperature and abnormal vibrations that could be signs of an impending problem. In such cases, maintenance and repairs can often take place before machine failure occurs.

Boosting Labor Productivity

Food processing automation also presents attractive opportunities for helping workforces maintain higher outputs without elevating the risk of fatigue or injuries. Working efficiently is critical when dealing with perishable foods, too. For example, if milk, yogurt or ice cream stays in a warm environment for too long, companies could face preventable wastage.

Mike Stein, an executive at Signode Industrial Group LLC, explained, “The more automated your operation, if designed, deployed and maintained properly, the more control you have over labor costs, spoilage costs, material-handling costs and the costs associated with maintaining temperature control in large facilities. Automation is able to raise performance and lower costs concurrently.”

Using Automation to Address Labor Shortage Struggles

Tyson Foods has made significant investments in automation, including putting $500 million toward tech improvements at its meat processing plants over the last several years. Up to 20% of the company’s 120,000-person workforce sometimes doesn’t come to shifts for numerous reasons. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated that problem.

Some food processing jobs also have high turnover rates. Thus, leaders at Tyson and other major brands hope automation can assist with repetitive tasks, like moving and stacking boxes, as well as jobs that require cutting meats. Some efforts are in the early stages, but it’ll be interesting to see the associated outcomes.

Equipping Workers With Larger Skill Sets

The shift toward automation can also bring more worker satisfaction, increasing the likelihood they’ll stay in their roles for longer periods. Daniel Sztutwojner, chief customer officer at communication platform Beekeeper, gave his perspective on how decisions to automate processes can broaden worker horizons.

“Instead of laying off production workers, companies are instead upskilling them over their mobile workplace platform and employing them in other areas. For instance, as food production speeds up, there is suddenly space and time for new products. Companies can then use their workforce for product innovation and efficiency development,” he said.

Maintaining Consistency

Food automation investments often have direct links to customer trustworthiness, particularly because advanced machines can put precisely the right amount of frosting on the top of a snack cake or safeguard against yoghurt containers being over, or underfilled.

Once a company has repeat customers, it must take strategic actions to keep them. If a consumer realizes chips don’t taste how they expect or a bag of nuts is only half full, they may lose confidence in a brand or even submit formal complaints.

Food processing automation can remove many of the variations associated with getting goods ready for the market, thereby ensuring consumers have the same positive experiences whenever and wherever they purchase products.

Future Foods, an Egyptian snack manufacturer, capitalized on the high demand for pretzels within its target market when leaders decided using a machine to automate the seasoning process was the way forward. That upgrade to its processing line led to handling up to 165 bags per minute with a 100% productivity rate. Company representatives also reported that the machinery allows taking a zero-waste approach with seasoning powders and the powder consumption stays under 5% with the new system.

Food Processing Automation Keeps Companies Competitive

These examples show why investments in food automation can help brands excel in a crowded marketplace. Even if decision-makers start modestly and scale-up, the payoffs can be substantial.

Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She has over six years experience writing articles for the tech and industrial sectors. Subscribe to the Revolutionized newsletter for more content from Emily at
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