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Elevating Productivity through Automation in Food Processing & Packaging

Efficiency Unleashed: Elevating Productivity through Automation in Food Processing & Packaging

Food sector success may seem an immense challenge given the ever-increasing levels of competition and continuous introduction of new products. Additional issues such as increasing costs, tight delivery schedules, and regulatory challenges make for a reliance on optimum productivity, with little or no room for downtime. However, automated technologies are having a transformative impact, particularly in terms of processing and packaging.

Relevant to food sector professionals, decision-makers, and businesses, this blog will explore the ways that such technologies can boost productivity, streamline operations, and ensure the maintenance of quality standards. Read on and be inspired by the efficiency-boosting impacts of automation.

Productivity in Food Production

A vital factor for success in the food manufacturing sector, productivity allows for the minimisation of costs, improvement of quality, and fulfillment of customer demands. It also ensures the optimum use of resources, with the environmental impact being minimised. However, food and beverage manufacturers face a range of productivity challenges, including supply chain uncertainty, rising energy costs, and labour shortages.

The development of automated technologies is making a big difference, as reflected in an analysis of ONS Data by FourJaw Manufacturing Analytics. Such technologies are being developed for the optimisation of various food production processes, from ingredient handling to cooking and mixing. Their integration contributed to a £48.5bn manufacturing sector productivity increase from 2022 to 2023.

Enhancing Efficiency & Quality

Food packaging is becoming an increasingly important factor as customers place more emphasis on freshness, presentation, and safety. Such demands have prompted manufacturers to focus on the efficiency and adaptability of packaging systems, with automation increasingly seen as the solution for time and error reduction. The adoption of such technologies allows for more rapid and accurate packaging, plus the avoidance of errors associated with manual handling.

As mentioned, automation is also making a positive difference in the maintenance of food production quality standards. For example, automated cutting and deboning machines allow for the reliably precise separation of meat from bones, reducing contamination risks and ensuring the maintenance of quality. Integrated with sensors and algorithms, such technologies can detect foreign objects and abnormalities that must be removed for customer satisfaction. They can also be relied upon for improved compliance with stringent food safety regulations.

Reducing Downtime and Turnaround

Along with supply chain challenges and labour shortages, downtime is widely recognised as one of the biggest challenges to food and beverage operations. This issue is exacerbated by the shortage of workers able to identify and resolve operational problems. However, automation minimises the amount of downtime by ensuring continuous production. Maintaining the same level of quality without the need for rests and breaks, such technology can have a big impact on production rates.

Customisation and Adaptability in Food Production

There’s traditionally been a reliance on human workers when it comes to the customisation of food products and packaging. However, automated machinery is increasingly allowing for such customisation at high volumes. Integrated with the Internet of Things (IoT), AI, and machine learning systems, these technologies can fulfill highly specific customer orders. Businesses can customise automation systems in line with their specific production needs too.

From raw food to sustainable packaging, automation also contributes to the optimal use of resources. This can be seen in the integration of automated packaging and labeling systems, able to complete boring and repetitive tasks with high speed and accuracy. Besides limiting the number of product rejections, such technology also allows human workers more freedom to focus on tasks that make best use of their skills and knowledge.

Such systems also allow for the accurate measurement and mixing of ingredients, with correct portioning and minimal waste. This means that food producers can realise benefits such as the reduction of costs and improved return on investment.

Real-world Success Stories

There are numerous real-world examples of food producers that have successfully implemented automation for enhanced productivity. For instance, the January/February 2024 edition of Machinery Update (page 38) highlighted the integration of a full-line portion to pack slicing solution developed by Multivac UK. This has enabled Ornua Foods UK to increase the efficiency and output of its cheese packs. Indeed, the system produces up to 108 packs per minute, allowing for the satisfaction of increased customer demands and budgetary requirements. The error rate has also been significantly reduced.

The same edition focused on a Swiss dairy processor’s installation of the Welma Puehler G-300 ReWork press (page 44). Developed in the UK by Fercell Engineering, this press automates the detection of overfilled, underfilled, and defective milk cartons. Such cartons are automatically opened, with the milk being returned to the production process. Waste is further reduced as the opened cartons are recycled.

Overcoming Implementation Challenges

There are a number of challenges that apply to the automation of food production and packaging as well as the wider manufacturing sector. The cost factor is known to be particularly significant for small and medium-sized businesses, with the initial investment and employee training having to be taken into account. The need for flexible and versatile automation systems can make for added expense.

Other automation barriers include:

  • Employee resistance given the fear of replacement by robots
  • The possibility of downtime and reduced product quality resulting from technology failures
  • The risk of cybersecurity breaches, which can cause production delays, data theft, and equipment damage
  • The challenge of integration with existing systems and processes.

As highlighted by the previous examples, automation obstacles can be overcome with sufficient planning and care in deployment. There should be transparency in the adoption process, with human workers reassured that such technologies will be used for the efficient completion of dirty, dull, and dangerous tasks. The positive impacts should be emphasised, particularly given the high levels of competition within the food processing and packaging sector.

Looking Ahead: Future Trends in Automation for Food Production

The widening recognition of automation benefits is expected to make for increased adoption across the food production industry. Growth in the adoption of food industry robotics looks set to be particularly marked, with a forecast compound annual growth rate of 6.16% from 2024 to 2028. There’s also expected to be a rise in the integration of AI and machine learning systems for such purposes as product scanning and issue identification. Such advancements are bound to further elevate productivity and efficiency.

Automate UK will continue to play a leading role in the support of successful food sector automation. Sharing in-depth insights and comprehensive support, we will help food and beverage businesses to thrive and increase productivity in an increasingly competitive marketplace. This will be key as more food producers look to automation as a strategic tool for the assurance of quality and growth.