Despite being essential businesses that have been allowed to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, some food manufacturing plants—most notably meat processing plants—were forced to close due to outbreaks of the virus among employees.
The closures brought to the forefront the vital role that automation could play in the food manufacturing industry. Specifically, automation could allow plants to continuously operate without heavy reliance on manual labor.
Automation is currently used in some areas of food manufacturing to increase productivity, maintain worker safety, and ensure quality food production. Recent improvements to robotics and sensor data, combined with data processing and the interpretive power of artificial intelligence, have led to smarter, more efficient ways of moving food through the supply chain, says Daniel Bruce, founder and chief artificial intelligence officer at Vinsa, a West Palm Beach, Fla., company that provides computer vision solutions for food manufacturers. Processing plants and warehouses use robotics and automation to transport raw materials, reducing manual handling.
Bruce is also seeing manufacturers use computer vision to monitor and optimize the throughput of products in manufacturing lines. For example, different products require different amounts of time to freeze as they go through chillers. Because a belt’s speed and a chiller’s temperature are configurable, manufacturers are hoping to use the technology to automatically detect product coming through, learn optimal settings for speed and temperature, and adjust accordingly.
Furthermore, Pete Zimmerman, a software sales manager at VAI, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) solution provider in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., that provides automation capabilities to food manufacturers and distributors, says that many food manufacturers have adopted automation practices in their daily operations for processes such as entering orders for electronic data interchange or streamlining complex manufacturing processes using programmable logic controller platforms.
For example, managing sufficient supply levels is a critical aspect for food manufacturers. With automated tools and forecasting applications, Zimmerman says manufacturers can determine precisely what goods need to be produced and how much material should be purchased based on supply and demand planning. In the food industry, automated tools in warehouse management that measure things like temperature control, alerting, and inventory levels are increasingly crucial to maintaining food safety compliance.
Automation is also prevalent in most high-volume areas where products and packaging are consistent, such as cereal in boxes or soup in cans, says Tom Steininger, market development director for Dematic, an Atlanta-based company that provides automated solutions for manufacturing, warehouses, and distribution centers. However, meat processing―due to the inconsistent product size, weight, cuts, and so forth―remains mostly manual.
Slow to Adopt
Despite its capabilities and advantages, the food manufacturing industry has not been quick to jump on the automation bandwagon. “Although the food manufacturing industry has made significant technological advancements over the years, the food supply chain has simultaneously become more complex and demanding and requires the entire supply chain to automate in order to meet demand,” Zimmerman says. In addition, food safety regulation and recalls are still a concern for manufacturers and compliance continues to be a top priority. “With better tracking and warehouse technology, however, companies can work toward eliminating recalls or instances of foodborne illnesses.”
Although food manufacturers have actively used robots for years for packaging, palletizing, cutting, dispensing, and sorting, the use of robots in other areas, such as picking, has been slower to develop. “With improvements in robotics technology, such as grippers, collaborative robots (which can accurately and uniformly pick and pack products, even fragile produce), and mobile robots, we will likely see many more applications going forward,” says Jeff Burnstein, president of the Association for Advancing Automation in Ann Arbor, Mich.
The Impact of COVID-19
The coronavirus pandemic has significantly impacted the food manufacturing industry, including upending food manufacturing operations, halting production, and slowing economic and technological progress. Simultaneously, the outbreak has highlighted serious gaps in the food supply chain. “Many of these gaps are a result of an increasingly spread out and complex supply chain, as well as high demand for faster processing and transparency, which is especially crucial in response to COVID-19,” Zimmerman says.