The food industry has been relatively slow to adopt what industry insiders call “Industry 4.0,” the fourth revolution in manufacturing. Central to this “revolution,” according to Forbes magazine, are autonomous systems driven by data and machine learning, or the “digitization of manufacturing.” While some level of automation technology in the food industry is the norm, it’s typically limited to specific processing steps such as washing, sorting, and packing.
In other factories, however, automation takes on another meaning and uses more advanced technologies, such as the Internet of Things (IoT), to connect equipment and devices, smart sensors to collect real-time data, and 3D vision and artificial intelligence (AI) to execute complicated tasks.
One reason for this delay in adoption in the food industry is an element of fragmentation within food processing. “While in other sectors you can connect various devices together and collect data, in the food industry there is a lot of standalone equipment,” says Craig Salvalaggio, COO at Applied Manufacturing Technologies, an automation engineering company based in Anaheim, Calif., and member of the board of directors for the Association for Advancing Automation. “It’s like having little islands connected by conveyors.”
Before buying any [automation] equipment, companies should understand their current process, data, and metrics, and where they want to go from there—whether it’s increasing capacity, demand, or flexibility. You can learn a lot from visiting factories in other industries, such as automotive or aerospace.—Craig Salvalaggio
Another reason for the food industry’s slow adoption of Industry 4.0 comes from the complexity of certain operations: “In the meat sector, for instance, some companies believe they’re able to realize higher yield by having more skilled labor and personnel,” says Lee Coffey, market development manager for the CPG segment at Milwaukee, Wisc.-based Rockwell Automation.
The Impact of COVID-19
Part of this gap was recovered during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the adoption of Industry 4.0 solutions was accelerated by new challenges, such as the rise of online grocery shopping: “E-commerce created new opportunities throughout the industry,” says Coffey. “Anywhere from beverage manufacturers to meat processors, companies can reach new customers and markets, but they’re also producing more SKUs than ever. There are more changeovers and more ingredients being used, and that’s adding complexity and downward pressure on productivity and profits.” Workforce shortages is another factor that has become problematic during the pandemic “With workers not showing up and COVID-19 restrictions, companies have been struggling with scheduling production and meeting demands, especially in those labor-intensive areas where you have to handle the product and get it into a tray and then into a box,” he adds.
Key Automation Technology
With these new challenges, some key technologies are proving to be particularly sound solutions. Manufacturing execution systems (MES) are one such solution; they keep track of all food processing data, from raw materials to finished products, and have existed in the food industry for a long time. Recently, however, the approach to these systems is different, says Gerardo Villafuerte, digitalization manager for North America at Liquid Consulting, a Sanford, Fla.-based firm that provides engineering and automation solutions to food manufacturers. “You used to have reports with all kinds of variables and data; now, companies are looking for data that matters to them. It’s no longer about just the technology but also about how it can be applied to have safer processes around products.”
Having the right data is crucial in the case of a product recall: “If a contamination is detected,” says Villafuerte, “you can use your MES and [enterprise resource planning] ERP systems to find out exactly where that lot was produced, where it was shipped, what instruments and ingredients were used to produce it, and how long the ingredients were stored before being processed.”