By Sudhanshu Chaubey*
The automation of manu-facturing food has been actively pursued for more than 50 years. And it will continue to be so, even more aggressively, during the next 50 years.
The increased zeal in industrial automation is mainly due to the explosive growth in computer hardware and software technology. As computers invade almost every aspect of our daily lives, the public at large has come to expect a high level of automation in every facet of the manufacturing processes. The extent of industrial automation depends a great deal on the type of industry. The automobile and semiconductor industries represent the most mature in adopting plant automation principles with nearly all processes having been automated and fairly well integrated. At the other end of the spectrum is perhaps the food industry, representing lower levels of automation, which has traditionally lagged in adopting technological advances. There are many reasons for this lack of uptake and this article will initially discuss the factors that make automation of food production so essential and at the same time consider counter influences that have prevented this automation uptake. The current level of automation in the food industry has been described as “islands of automation.”
Highly competitive retailers constantly squeezing down prices, rising raw material costs and soaring utility charges in a labor-intensive manufacturing environment; why shouldn’t food manufacturers look towards automating their manufacturing processes? Automa-ting food production can obtain many benefits. The ability to repli-cate the appearance and quality of a product with the minimum use of ingredients not only improve line efficiencies leading to bottom-line profit but also can potentially increase sales. At the same time, improving the traceability of raw ingredients will provide the added benefit of improved food safety.
Factory-based food production and processing globally form one of the largest economic and employment sectors. Within it, current automation and engineering practice are highly variable, ranging from completely manual operations to the use of the most advanced manufacturing systems. Yet overall there is a general lagging the use of automation technology compared with other industries. In particular, the article will focus on the diversity of an industry covering areas such as bakery, dairy, confectionery, snacks, meat, poultry, seafood, produce, sauce/condiments, frozen, and refrigerated products, which means that generic solutions are often (considered by the industry) difficult or impossible to obtain. almost completely generic, such as labeling, quality/safety automation, and palletization, and others that do require an almost unique approach due to the natural and highly variable features of food products. In considering these needs, this chapter has, therefore, approached the specific automation requirements of food production from two perspectives. Firstly, it will be shown that in many cases there are generic automation solutions that could be valuably used across the industry ranging from small cottage facilities to large multinational manufacturers. Examples of generic types of automation well suited across the industry will be provided. Besides, for some very specific difficult handling operations, customized solutions will be shown to give opportunities to study the problems/risks/demands associated with food handling and to provide an insight into the solution, thereby demonstrating that in most instances the difficult/impossible can indeed be achieved.
Past, Present and Future
If there is one industry that we just cannot do without, it has to be the food industry. Today’s food processing and packaging are so much different, and the efficiency bar has been raised much higher. Automation has taken over where humans were once commonplace. Industry decision-makers know that plant systems must constantly evolve to meet consumer requirements/demands. This means upgrading existing equipment or purchasing new equipment. That can be a huge challenge when the cost of a square foot of a food plant is so expensive and fixed base cost is considerable. The decisions of how to proceed may not be easy but aren’t an impossible industry.
You will find a variety of different machinery including automated ovens, cutting and forming machines, sortation equipment, mixers, and blending machines, filling equipment, wrapping equipment, and as many robots as a highly automated automotive assembly line. Automation is now a necessity in the food industry to address the required levels of quality control, production speed, labor shortages, and overall profitability.
Manufacturers are well aware of the challenges today and tomorrow, developing new and innovative products to automate every process possible. jobs in food processing will continue to shift away from manual labor, where workers sit along the side of a conveyor picking, sorting and packaging food items, to operators that monitor the processes in a control room with an eye on equipment speed, efficiency and quality control. However, the food industry is not an industry that can run in the dark – it will always require human intervention. Available labor in the food processing industry will continue to be one of the greatest challenges, driving even more need for automation … beginning with harvesting and moving right on through the supply chain, even down to the way the products are delivered to the restaurants that prepare the food or the consumers’ home and kitchen. Automation will not replace people but will improve the skills workers need to keep up with the pace of change. New demands in the skill sets of food processing workers will require a higher level of training to meet the machinery production capabilities. No matter the type of product or the way it is packaged, automation has found its way into the process of the food industry. At the end of the day, plant floor automation is good for the food processing industry – keeping costs down and food quality up.
* Author is a trainee at G.B Pant University in Button Mushroom Production & Hydroponics