Automation is such a broad term. It can mean many things to many people, and its connotation can change vastly depending on time and circumstance. Perhaps it was my recent visit to PACK EXPO East in Philadelphia or maybe it has more to do with a general movement in this direction, but I’ve been reminded lately that automation does not have to be the huge undertaking that many people might think of when faced with the prospect of starting such a project.
We could talk about whether or not automation takes workers’ jobs—a relevant conversation whether the project is large or small—but we can save that discussion for another day. Any level of automation will likely reduce the number of people needed for a particular task, which is essential amid the workforce turmoil industry faces these days.
It seems that, particularly with the restraints that the COVID-19 pandemic introduced in factories and the extreme workforce challenges being faced, the food and beverage industry is beginning to come to terms with the need to automate. That can be more than a little daunting—and, in some cases, it is admittedly a huge undertaking. But there are all kinds of small steps you can take that will go a long way.
At a recent tour of TopPop Packaging’s current and newly opened plants in New Jersey, I saw how the contract packager is processing alcoholic ice pops for various clients. One stark example showed how much just a bit of automation could change the landscape. On one side of the aisle, they had 16 to 18 people grabbing six of each of the two flavors and placing them into 12-pack boxes. On the other side of the aisle, they had upgraded to machines that served up six of each flavor to just nine workers to do the same job. It not only reduced the workforce needed on that side of the aisle, but also provided them with the social distancing needed in relation to pandemic concerns.
At PACK EXPO East in March, I poked my head into the booth of Hoosier Feeder Co. just to say, “Hey, I’m a Hoosier too!” But they actually had an interesting story to tell about the a project they’re working on for a major food supplier. Hoosier Feeder’s background is largely in the automotive space, but they saw how much even small changes in the feeder automation could mean to the food industry. The application they talked about was feeding sausage patties onto croissants. Already working to make sure the client’s croissants oriented in the correct direction, they were struck by the workers manually pulling sausage patties out of boxes and placing them onto those croissants. The supplier is now at the final stages of modifying the feeder so that it drops the patties directly onto each correctly flipped croissant.
Even changing the way that paperwork is handled (i.e., making it not “paperwork” anymore) can make a huge difference in how you track and trace your process. If you take a look at Joyce Fassl’s April cover story, “FDA Proposed Rule for Traceability—Are You Prepared?”, you’ll see that the FDA is not requiring that producers move away from Excel spreadsheets or paper documentation. But the fact remains that tech-enabled traceability is much more streamlined and effective.
|Watch a Take 5 video for some quick highlights of the FDA regulations and their implications for perishable foods.
Not every automation project is going to be a small one, of course. Some will be huge ventures that require more rip and replace just to deal with all the legacy systems. Read the April issue’s Tech Today, and you’ll get an idea of what I mean. But there are a lot of opportunities for small changes to make big improvements in efficiency.
|Read the Tech Today report, "Moving Maintenance From Preventive to Predictive."