Food Industry Struggles with Barriers to Automation

May 1, 2020
Automation has great potential, but daunting barriers stand in the way.

Automation could, in theory, solve many of the food and beverage industry’s problems.

So why doesn’t that happen more often?

It’s clear that various forms of automation should be able to help with many of the challenges, both eternal and relatively recent, that the industry faces, such as staffing adequately, maintaining quality and safety, keeping product moving out the door, and satisfying demands for SKU variety. But food as an industrial sector has historically lagged in adopting automation, and that situation shows no sign of abating.

Experts consulted by Food Processing identified a variety of factors that may be slowing down adoption of automation, such as the nature of food and beverage production and the expense and uncertainty of both hardware and software. But they add that overcoming these concerns is both inevitable and vital.

Robots are most commonly used for packaging, but their potential for processing is increasing.
Photo: Apex Motion Control

“Automation is really the long-term investment to being competitive, and is kind of the lifeblood of being a better business,” says Colin Guheen, managing director of food, beverage and agribusiness investments at Capital One Commercial Banking.

Guheen says that simple inertia is a powerful barrier, especially in an industry that operates on a fast-paced, get-it-out-the-door mentality.

“The dollar expenses [in automation] are just the tip of the iceberg,” he says. “You’ve got cultural expenses in your management team and how they’ve done things in the past. You’ve got opportunity costs – at some point it’s going to slow things down before it can speed things up and you can get the return on the automation. And then there’s just the inertia costs, of people not wanting to change.”

As grippers become more sophisticated and able to handle products more gently, potential for robots in processing increases.
Photo: Apex Motion Control

Perhaps the biggest inhibitor is the fear that’s always present whenever new, complicated technology gets introduced anywhere: that it won’t work, or at least not as advertised. Closely related are concerns about downtime and worker training.

“Anytime a new technology, or even existing proven technology, is proposed to be implemented into current production, there are always questions and concerns that seem to float to the top,” says Rob Antonides, owner and founder of systems integrator Apex Motion Control. Antonides mentions factors such as initial expense, downtime and training issues as possible sticking points.

“Until an interested party actually sees the equipment in action, other than on a video or picture, there will be some reluctance,” Antonides says. “That is why it is important to understand the customer’s specific requirements, concerns and needs. Is it speed, consistency, ingredient waste, labor shortage?”

Step by step

That’s why automation often happens in baby steps, wherever a processor, especially a smaller or mid-sized one, perceives the greatest need. It’s why equipment suppliers like Unifiller put their fillers, depositors and other bakery processing equipment on wheels.

Putting equipment on wheeled skids is a way to ease automation into a process.
Photo: Unifiller

“Unifiller machines are modular; i.e., they can work alone or can be fitted/integrated (like the pieces of a puzzle) into a bigger system,” says Sonia Bal, director of marketing at Unifiller. “For many of our customers, our equipment grows with them. They may have initially purchased a stand-alone depositor when production was manageable, but since then, their production needs have increased and they may have added a pump, sensors, attachments and a conveyor to create a fully automated depositing line.”

However, there’s often a long-term price to pay for piecemeal automation. Getting rid of bottlenecks one by one is all very well, but it results in a patchwork system that’s hard to coordinate or improve.

“A major obstacle to the full adoption of automation is that food and beverage plants are often brownfield sites where investments in automation have occurred in pockets over time to address specific-use cases or bottlenecked areas,” says Luke Durcan, director of EcoStruxure, an automation software package from Schneider Electric.

"As a result, organizations end up with many different vendors and technologies that don’t necessarily integrate,” he adds. The biggest consequence is difficulty in collecting data that might be useful for supervisory software such as an enterprise resource planning system or manufacturing execution system.

Packaging automation

In many food and beverage plants, automation is far more developed in packaging than processing. This is mostly because packaging is a high-speed, discrete assembly process with multiple repetitive steps, amenable to automation.

Yet even with packaging, automation regularly faces obstacles. One of the most maddening situations in any food plant is when a packaging machine goes down, forcing production to either stop or be accumulated at a point upstream with enough capacity to buy the time needed to get the packaging machine back up.

Some of this is unavoidable, because many packaging machines perform precise, delicate tasks, like maintaining the proper tension in moving film webs, that can easily go out of whack. But the problem is exacerbated by two factors, says Jorge Izquierdo, vice president of market development with PMMI: the age of many packaging machines, and the advent of packaging materials that are reduced in thickness or otherwise not as robust as they used to be.

For decades, the trend in packaging has been to thin-down films, bottle walls and other materials, partly to save money, but mostly as a way to counter criticism of packaging as a source of pollution and waste. Recycled materials have also surged, especially with secondary packaging like corrugated cases. But this presents problems for packaging equipment, especially older machines, Izquierdo says.

“That makes a significant number of problems in terms of handling the material within the piece of equipment,” he says. “In many cases you need to adapt to new materials, and the machines were not necessarily designed for those materials.”

Equipment manufacturers are trying to compensate, but it’s not easy. “We’re addressing it, but it’s not completely solved. Materials are changing faster than at any time in the past, and when a new material comes in, it’s a learning experience for both the manufacturer of the equipment and the [end user].”

Another obstacle to automating packaging is the need for flexibility. As trade customers demand ever more SKUs, materials must be swapped out, and adjustments must often be made in machine settings. Even with servomotors, this is still difficult to achieve automatically, especially with primary packaging.

Izquierdo says automation can help with changeover – if the end user is willing to pay. “In some cases there is a limit to flexibility you can offer at a certain price level. The more automation you want, the higher the cost of the equipment.”

He suggests that instead of looking for full automation of changeovers, end users seek a sweet spot where they can get the reduction in manual labor they want at the price they’re willing to pay. “We’re trying to find a good balance between price and quick changeover, where maybe not all of the changeover is done automatically, but the time for the changeover is cut significantly.”

Robots and more

Processing is generally considered a less fruitful area for automation than packaging, for several reasons. Many processing operations are batch-oriented, and the payoff for automation isn’t there; it just doesn’t save enough money over manual labor. And even if there is potential for a return, some kinds of automation that are a fit for packaging just aren’t suited for processing.

Chief among these is robotics. While robots have made inroads into some processing steps, notably material handling aspects like pick-and-place, they have some aspects that present difficulties in processing.

Probably the most daunting one is handling. Robotic arms and their grippers are well suited to picking up packages, especially sturdy ones like cases. They’re more problematic with unpackaged product, which needs gentle, sanitary handling.

Packaging, as a high-speed, discrete operation, is where automation is most likely to take hold.
Photo: EU Automation

However, gripper technology is making progress, and grippers are now able to handle an increasing number of products, according to Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director at industrial automation equipment supplier EU Automation.

“Going forward, soft robots will be capable of performing tasks that current machines are unable to accomplish,” Wilkins says. “Grippers are now being used to handle delicate products with care. It is known that robots have found it difficult to handle fruits and vegetables without avoiding damage. Recent developments in flexible gripping technologies mean robots can now handle delicate foods without causing damage and can even pick individual segments of a fruit and vegetable – a lettuce leaf as an example.”

Sanitation is another issue. Processing areas are far more likely than packaging lines to require washdowns, often with highly pressurized and/or caustic liquids. No one wants to expose expensive machinery to that kind of risk – and robots are among the most expensive equipment there is.

But just as other kinds of equipment can be made washdown-safe, so can robots. Stäubli unveiled, at the recent International Production & Processing Expo in Atlanta, a line of washdown-safe robots designed for high-pressure sanitation.

Robot arms designed for processing areas are often silicon-coated for gentler handling. Even these can be designed to withstand washdowns, Wilkins says: “Robot manufacturers have removed any issues concerning silicon coverings as they have made their robot casings smoother, with better ingress ratings and no loose wires.”

Even though improvements to robots have increased their potential for processing, more established equipment and techniques will probably be more viable for the foreseeable future.

“The continuous and batch process industry has been finding ways of addressing the same goals of increasing speed, accuracy, repeatability and consistency using similar fundamental automation technologies as applied to robotics,” says Steve Malyszko, president and CEO of Malisko Engineering an industrial systems integrator.

“Examples of solutions applied in processing to achieve these same goals have been instrumentation, automated final control elements, variable frequency drives/servomotors, weigh scales, analytical devices, controllers capable of simultaneously and repeatedly controlling multiple variables and process units in such a way requiring far less operator intervention while performing consistently 24x7.”

Man and machine

No matter how, or how much, a plant is automated, there’s still the human factor. Floor workers have to operate, monitor or otherwise interact with equipment, and it’s important that they be prepared to do so.

Perhaps the most important factor is attitude. As long as there have been machines doing what humans used to do, some of the humans have resented it. And if a worker decides, consciously or unconsciously, that a machine isn’t going to work, it won’t work.

“Operators can make or break the success of a new automation system,” says John Parraga, a process specialist at control integrator ECS Solutions. “Listening to their needs is sometimes more or as important as listening to other system stakeholders.” That means giving them a sense of ownership from the beginning, by asking them how they operate the current or previous system and how they would like the new one to be different.

“Even though the system designer has a good idea of what is required and what the new system may look like, it is important to listen to the operators say what they need,” Parraga says. “With this simple step, operators feel empowered to influence the final design and will support onboarding activities for all operators.”

Those onboarding activities are critical. The most sophisticated, efficient piece of equipment in the world will be useless if the people who have to run it don’t know what they’re doing. Inadequate training (or none at all) is one of the biggest stumbling blocks as automation increases.

Unfortunately, there are factors that pull companies away from adequate training. If an operating budget gets stretched thin, operators and technical support people who might be capable of training others are busy just keeping things running. This problem is exacerbated by employee turnover, where new people have to constantly be trained.

In addition, training materials and procedures for sophisticated new equipment are one of the equipment manufacturer’s responsibilities. Purchasers should be wary of OEMs who shave their bids by skimping on or omitting training, Malyszko says.

“Spending sufficient money and allowing proper time for training operators and tech support personnel on current automation can reap huge dividends for the company, plant efficiency, safety and job satisfaction,” he says.

The same can be said for automation as a whole. It’s hard to keep things running day-to-day on one hand while planning comprehensive changes to a process with the other. But it’s necessary to long-term success.

“The companies that have trouble today largely shunned automation and shunned the collaborative approach with their customers in implementing it,” says Capital One’s Guheen. “You see that with some of the more troubled facilities that are out there today, in that they were so focused on keeping the lights on that they never worked the value [proposition] and did the hard work to take it to the next level.”

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