Easier automation helps food production

Control Engineering International: What will future food manufacturing environments look like? Suzanne Gill, Control Engineering Europe, spoke to some key industry vendors to get insights about the future of food production. As the need for skilled labor increases, and regulations require track and trace records, advanced automation is getting easier to apply and use.


Software, drives, and controllers from Siemens operated the Hacos MDECO 3D Chocolate Decorating Machine at Pack Expo 2015 in Chicago, producing the diverse customized confections shown. Courtesy: Mark T. Hoske, Control Engineering, CFE MediaFood manufacturers need to become more agile and flexible to satisfy the changing and increasingly demanding requirements of retailers and consumers in a market where consumer purchasing intelligence is becoming increasingly powerful, Internet ordering is growing rapidly, and logistics are becoming highly dynamic.

The U.K. ranks as the second worst country for productivity among the industrialized nations; if productivity could increase to U.S. levels, each household would be $25,669 (£21,000) per year better off.

"For the machine designer it is simply not possible to adapt many existing solutions to achieve the step change in productivity that manufacturers are looking for," said Martin Leeming, CEO at Trakrap. "The whole system architecture needs to change from the bottom up, and you quite literally have to go back to the drawing board and start again."

Speed to market, asset utilization

Leeming, like others, said the answer is in the digitization of machines and processes and in the acquisition and proper use of big data. "A big step change in productivity improvement does not lie in simply undertaking the same process with less people. It requires companies to rethink other things like speed to market, asset utilization, energy reduction, reduced changeover times and making to order, not to stock," continued Leeming. He said many barriers remain: only 48% of manufacturers claim to be ready for Industrie 4.0, and it is thought that 40 to 50% of existing machinery will need to be replaced to make the step change that the U.K. needs.

Keith Thornhill, business manager, food and beverage at Siemens UK and Ireland, said the current rate of technological change within the industrial environment shows no sign of slowing, so food industry prediction is not an exact science. Even so, "With competitiveness and changing consumer demands increasingly being seen as industry drivers, it is clear that automated processes, whether... physical or digital, will assist food manufacturers to deliver cost-effective, repeatable and safe products," he said.

However, to achieve this, there is a need to focus on critical areas of productivity, efficiency, and agility. By looking to maximize effectiveness it is possible to take significant steps toward creating the technological-driven solutions necessary for the competitive years ahead.

Some identifiable areas require particular attention, Thornhill said. He advises food manufacturers to set a clear mid-to long-term vision of digital integration so factories can adopt maximum transparency across all areas of product development and production.

"This includes a need for closed-loop data integration from the enterprise resource planning (ERP) level right through to production, individual asset performance and back," Thornhill said. "Detailed machinery and automation specifications also need to be agreed [upon], so data transparency can underpin strategic decision making and productivity targets can be addressed." Thornhill also advises that companies seek to reduce obsolescence to reduce costs and to future proof available assets.

Automation investment drivers

Andrew Macpherson, food and beverage manager at Festo, agrees that the pressure from retailers and consumers to safely produce more food, of greater variety, at sustainable prices and high quality, is driving investment in automation. He predicts that the level of automation in the food sector in 10 years will completely change the food production environment.

"In the future, food production machines from different manufacturers will need to share data and communicate with each other, using open communication protocols, and will be able to make necessary adjustments automatically. These machines also will be able to tell the operator if a problem is developing, whether performance is dropping or energy consumption is rising, and more importantly what needs to happen to fix it," said Macpherson.

Food manufacturers, suppliers and customers also will become more closely linked. Data relating to consumer demands and trends will be shared to ensure that production is adjusted based on real time demands. "All of this available data will bring new challenges, relating to security and how to interpret it. Engineers will have to work more closely with their IT colleagues to get the maximum benefit for their business," he said; "As the link between the consumer and the food manufacturer gets closer, production machinery will need to become more flexible and able to change to smaller batch quantities, quickly."

Macpherson believes that the materials used in the production machines of the future also may be completely different from what is being used as standard today. Take, for example, the development of nano-coating technologies such as plasma coating. "This could allow standard materials to be coated to provide increased bacterial resistance, potentially replacing stainless steel in the food sector," he said.

New technologies also will emerge that help extend the shelf life of food products. These might involve new processes or the use of different gases, for example, ozone. "This will raise further challenges for food machinery producers, such as how to handle these new processes while ensuring it is a safe working environment for staff," concluded Macpherson. 

Flexible track and trace

"The requirement for efficiency monitoring, product tracking and traceability, faster, safer, lower-cost processing and packaging solutions, and plant flexibility are growing across all sectors of the food industry," said Chris Evans, marketing and operations group manager at Mitsubishi Electric-Automation Systems Division UK. This has resulted in rapid advances in automation technology. One of the biggest is the increasing use of small articulated arm and SCARA-style robots to perform repetitive tasks.

"Mitsubishi hosts regular seminars on the use of robotics in the food industry and attendees are usually surprised by the low package cost, combined with ease of use and simple integration," said Evans. "Platform integration is a major theme when it comes to delivering multiple benefits. Users expect an incremental improvement when replacing individual automation components such as drives, servo systems and PLCs [programmable logic controllers]. However, if you take a holistic view of your automation system, then you can make some really significant gains."

For example, a powerful PLC used to manage a production line can coordinate guided-operator pick, light systems that improve quality and throughput for manual workers, conveyor systems, process plant ovens and chillers, high-speed packaging machines, robot cutting, packing and stacking lines.

"The future for automation in the food industry is most certainly going to be centered around increased plant and automation platform integration, simply because the universal advances that producers require cannot be delivered without it," concluded Evans. 

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