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Get Big Results From Small Automation

As skilled labor becomes less available on the plant floor, more facilities are considering what benefits automation could provide. It doesn’t have to be as scary or expensive as a complete overhaul.

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Within the pages of ProFood World, we’re not shy about showing off the incredible innovations happening in gleaming new food and beverage plants throughout the industry—where they’ve spent hundreds of millions of dollars for all the latest automation. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that not every effort toward automation needs to break the bank.

Undertaking large automation projects can be daunting, to say the least, not to mention often prohibitively expensive. But small automation projects can give processors the boost they need and can often see quick paybacks. In this climate of labor difficulties, automation is increasingly essential just to keep production going. But these projects often come with other benefits, such as reliability, consistency, hygienic operation, better recordkeeping and supply chain management, and more.

We’re not talking about lights-out automation, where there’s nobody left in the room. Instead, small projects can greatly decrease the number of employees working on low-skill tasks so that they can be deployed elsewhere in the plant. “Taking a room that might have 20 people on a cut-up line and getting that down to maybe 10, that’s a big deal,” says Geoff Bennett, package handling layout consultant for Intralox.


   Join us for a webinar on this topic, “How Incremental Automation Helps Processors Solve Labor Issues,” with panelists from Intelligent Foods and Boichik Bagels.

That was certainly the case with Prestage Foods of South Carolina, a recent winner of ProFood World’s Manufacturing Innovation Award, where, despite high levels of automation throughout the turkey processing facility, workers are still actively involved on the production line. It means the plant runs with just over 300 people in more skilled positions rather than the 750 workers that would be needed without automation.

Changing attitudes toward automation

Automation has become not only a necessity, but manufacturers are realizing the myriad benefits it can bring. “Universally, everybody wants to automate in some form,” Bennett says. “Sometimes that falls into a piece of equipment, sometimes it falls into adding conveyance.”

Robots have become much more accepted over the past few years, notes Mike Newcome, vice president of sales for JLS, which makes robotic systems for food and other industries. “I don’t think the technology has changed that much,” he says. “What’s happened is the applications have become validated and it’s now an accepted technology.”

The COVID pandemic went a long way to changing attitudes, in Newcome’s observations. “It put our customers on their heels because they had no labor. That more than anything I attribute to the big run-up,” he says. “Our customers started to realize it isn’t necessarily about how many people you can remove from a line. Instead of applying a very standard ROI model, it became: What’s the cost not to produce?”

If you have a multimillion-dollar line that you can’t staff, it’s best to start thinking about what’s highly repetitive that can be automated, Newcome notes. “And then those people I can move to another line that maybe isn’t as automation-friendly.”

Automation has been a key strategy particularly since COVID and the lack of labor availability, Bennett says. “That’s driven so much more of this need to reallocate the labor they have,” he says. “Just getting people that are going to show up at the plant for something that requires manual labor is a big deal.”

But the pandemic had an impact in other ways as well, including booming business for some sectors of the industry. That was the case for Clarion Locker in Clarion, Iowa, which saw its meat business grow and reshape considerably.

“As much as everybody hated COVID, it was really an amazing thing that occurred for the small and very small meat processors across the entire country,” says Manie Nel, owner of Clarion Locker. “For the mom-and-pop shops like myself, we had a certain clientele up until COVID. Then, when all the large packing plants were shutting down, and there was a shortage of meat in the big box stores, all these families across the country turned to their small meat processing plants, the lockers. It just took off like wildfire and there wasn’t a processor across the country that could keep up.”

Even since pandemic restrictions have lifted, much of that hasn’t changed. “Most processors out there are still a lot busier than they were before the COVID crisis,” Nel says.

Another consequence of the pandemic was that many of these small meat processors received federal aid to help boost production. “That helped a lot with the growth of a lot of small lockers that had potential to grow but didn’t have the finances to do it,” Nel says. “That helped them automate too, and automation was needed due to the sudden spike in customer demand.”

With the Nowicki automated brine injector, Clarion Locker is able to inject in less than an hour what an employee used to take two days to inject manually.With the Nowicki automated brine injector, Clarion Locker is able to inject in less than an hour what an employee used to take two days to inject manually.BAK Food Equipment

Clarion, for example, invested in an automated brine injector system from BAK Food Equipment to address the spike in products that needed to be cured and preserved. “I just couldn’t keep up,” Nel says. “I didn’t have enough hours in the day to do it the way I was doing it.”

Nel had been spending three or four hours injecting hams, dried beef, pork loins, etc. But when demand picked up during COVID, one employee was spending two whole days on this task. “Now, what I did in two days, I could do in less than an hour with this machine,” he says. “You mix the brine, you dump it in, and hit play. You just set the meat on the conveyor, and the machine does the rest.”

Clarion also saw a change in consistency with the automated process. “There are no more dead spots, where the cure doesn’t quite reach the meat. That usually occurs around the bone, and you’ll get a lot of that with hand injecting, so it’s inconsistent curing,” Nel says. “You also get a more regulated pump. If you set it at a 10 or 12% injection rate, it’s consistent through every product.”

Nel had considered automated injection previously, but it was COVID that gave him the push he needed—both in terms of demand and the funding available.

Clarion has been using the automated brine injector—along with other bits of automation, such as a hamburger stuffer—for almost two years and has never looked back. “I think my [co-owner] wife would give me up before she gives up the injector because it’s really saved her a lot of time and headache too,” Nel quips. “The way we were doing things before, it was a specialized process that only certain individuals would be able to do. Even after training, it wasn’t guaranteed that the individual that was trained would do it correctly. With this injector, you could literally train anybody to do it; it’s not a specialized job, per se.”

Continued labor concerns

The shortage of labor in the food and beverage industry is an ongoing issue, so facilities will continue to transition to increased automation. COVID-19 only exacerbated what was already an issue: The places that have the space to build a plant do not always come with a built-in labor force. And since the pandemic, not only is it difficult to find enough staff, manufacturers must also be more mindful about having them all there together, breathing the same air.

Small changes are making a big impact on how food and beverage manufacturers are making use of the labor available to them. “It gives the labor force more power, in my opinion, because now their skills are better utilized in something that is going to add value as opposed to just moving material,” says Niranjan Kulkarni, senior director of consulting services for CRB.

Particularly for low-skill labor, which is what typically makes more sense to automate, many manufacturers are competing with the likes of Amazon or McDonald’s, Kulkarni notes. “In some cases, you may not find labor at all. We have this client in the middle of nowhere and they can’t find people to come to the site. Or they come there for a few days and then they’re gone. It’s not such a shiny, nice place. It’s hot, it’s humid, and I don’t want to work there. So I just don’t show up on the fourth day,” he says. “That is the reason why people are looking into automation—not just from a cost-saving perspective, but because we may not have the talent here.”

Although interest in automation continues to grow, there is still some fear among operators, according to Tom Bako, director of business development for BAK Food Equipment. “We still find that many operators fear these automated solutions will degrade their product or quality or flavor, or the level of comfort in using the automation. We also see concerns about automation increasing food prices or displacing human workers,” he says. “But these fears are simply untrue. Rather, automation can improve overall product quality, enhance flavor, allow workers to be reassigned to more interesting or other needed areas of the plant, which could be less dangerous as well.”

A bacon process that previously took about 40 workers now uses just two workers to run this automated spiral cooking, smoking, and freezing system.A bacon process that previously took about 40 workers now uses just two workers to run this automated spiral cooking, smoking, and freezing system.BAK Food Equipment

BAK Food Equipment had a customer interested in its fully automated bacon line as a way to help ease some considerable labor tensions, Bako notes. It’s a process that can take 40 or more workers with traditional methods. “This large processor implemented our Protech Automated Spiral Cooking, Smoking, Freezing System to find that they have reduced product loss, improved product quality, and increased throughput while optimizing their available labor,” Bako says. “In this particular system, we’re putting through 8,800 lb/hr of pork bellies, ready to be pressed and sliced, with two workers.”

Finding the problem spots

It’s important to understand where you operations might best be served by some level of automation. One way CRB engineers try to understand where opportunities might exist is by shadowing the product through the plant. “You become the product, and then you move through the facility,” Kulkarni explains. “We ask those annoying questions like ‘Why.’ Why am I sitting there? Why am I waiting for an operator to come pick me up? As the product is moving through the value stream, you start identifying the value-add vs. the non-value.”

A second way to come at the problem is with computer simulation—gathering information about product constraints, workflows, scheduling constraints, etc., and converting that to a simulation model.

There are pros and cons to both methods, but one advantage of the physical method is that it gives you an opportunity to interact with the operators who are seeing these issues on a regular basis. “Many times, they have solutions, they may just not be empowered, or they may just not have the right data to support their findings,” Kulkarni says. “On the other side, simulations are going to be extremely powerful because you can really step up and see the whole area of your domain in one shot. You can really start seeing, ‘OK, if I make this change here, how is it impacting downstream or upstream?’”

Tony Moses, director of product innovation for CRB, echoes this sentiment. Computer models can really help you understand better how automating one process might affect another process, he says, pointing to a customer case in which pepperoni slicing and topping was causing a bottleneck at a pizza maker. “If we automated that pepperoni slicing, that bottleneck might shift to the cheese topping, and we might only gain a few pizzas, or that operator might just have to shift downstream to keep up with that. So that holistic view with the model is awesome,” he says. “There’s great dicing and shredding equipment out there—we’ve seen companies move from handling large blocks of cheese to using automatic shredders. But you have to look at it holistically because that shredded cheese has to go somewhere.”

Getting from here to there

Sometimes the solution is as relatively simple as adding conveyance. “If you get to a point where you’re suddenly having a bunch of people running around with boxes, moving it from your primary pack to your secondary pack, or people moving up from your secondary pack to the palletizer, conveyance is pretty cheap,” Moses notes. “That’s a low-cost, high-impact solution.”

That space between primary and secondary packaging has become a hot spot for automation, according to Bennett, and it’s also a good place for conveyance equipment to step in. “The shift I see is focusing a lot more on the packaging area, where not only do you have the labor costs there, but you have safety and ergonomics issues with people lifting heavy product all day every day,” he says. That aggravates the labor availability issue, of course, if people are out on comp claims, he adds.

Though secondary packaging has seen its share of automation—particularly robotizing case packing or palletizing operations—it’s the space between processing and final packaging that has been lacking, according to Bennett. The need has not been as great in these areas because they typically have not required as much labor, so more focus has gone to those parts of the operation that do.

T. Marzetti uses delta robots to pick bagged pans of Sister Schubert rolls from the conveyor belt, rotate them so that the ponytail is in the 12 o’clock position, and place them into a carton.T. Marzetti uses delta robots to pick bagged pans of Sister Schubert rolls from the conveyor belt, rotate them so that the ponytail is in the 12 o’clock position, and place them into a carton.This is an area that T. Marzetti decided needed automating at its plant in Luverne, Ala., where the company makes frozen bakery products such as Sister Schubert’s dinner rolls. The facility turned to robotics to reduce increasing labor costs. After coming out of a spiral freezer, bagged aluminum pans are manually placed on two conveyors leading to Cama systems that use delta robots to correctly orient the bags and place them into cartons.

“The ponytail needs to be in the 12 o’clock position if the package graphics are going to be properly aligned with the two display cutouts in the carton,” John Haenszel, project manager for T. Marzetti, told Packaging World. “So the Cama solution needs to do more than just put pans into cartons at rate. It needs to put pans into cartons in a specific orientation at rate. It uses a vision system to do that. It identifies the orientation of the ponytail and relays that data to the Rockwell controller, which sends that information to the robotic end effector, which in turn rotates in whichever direction it needs to get the ponytail in the 12 o’clock position.”


   Read the full story from Packaging World about T. Marzetti's robotic upgrades.

As automation is put in both processing and back-end operations, manufacturers are realizing the need to keep the space in between moving effectively as well, Bennett says. “If somebody’s looking at including a new piece of equipment into their facility—maybe it’s an automatic palletizer, maybe it’s new case sealers—it’s important to maintain the uptime and reliability of that machine. A lot of that comes into how the products are presented to it,” he notes. “If you’re investing a quarter of a million dollars into a robotic palletizer, you want to make sure that thing is fed consistently and as often as possible and it doesn’t become a bottleneck. That’s where we come in, to get product from point A to point B in whatever condition needs to happen and in whatever sequence it needs to happen to optimize that investment in that piece of equipment.”

In fact, sometimes the only automation that’s needed in a given situation is conveyance, Bennett contends, pointing to his time as an industrial engineer conducting time studies. “The most wasteful thing we tried to reduce was walking,” he says. “A person that is walking is not contributing any value to any process. So the less that somebody can physically be moving from one spot to another, or moving product physically from one spot to another, is in some ways a labor savings.”

Intralox worked with a poultry processor to evaluate the equipment in its tray sealing room. “It was part of a larger project where they were redoing all of the cut-up coming into this room,” Bennett says, explaining about the gray areas that often lie just beyond a new automation project. “There’s a point where if you don’t go far enough, the automation that you just did isn’t as effective as it could be. This was one of those instances where they were spending a lot of time and effort looking at implementing a lot of equipment on the cut-up side.”

Sometimes, a small amount of automation can help ease bottlenecks that fall between larger automation efforts. This was the case on a tray sealing line after a poultry processor added automation to its cutting process.Sometimes, a small amount of automation can help ease bottlenecks that fall between larger automation efforts. This was the case on a tray sealing line after a poultry processor added automation to its cutting process.Intralox

At that point, a worker was placing the poultry into trays, which then moved down a single trunk line to another person who would make sure all the product is how it should be in the tray—because the product has to be pulled off the line at a speed of 120 trays per minute, the product gets jostled. “So you spend all this time and effort to do all this automation upfront to get a higher throughput, but then you’ve just shifted some of the problem further downstream,” Bennett says.

The solution has typically been to just throw more people at the problem. In this day and age, of course, that’s easier said than done. “In this case, with some of the technology that we had developed specifically for tray pack handling, we were able to take out the need to have those two people on each tray seal line,” Bennett says. “We have a sorter that, once the tray packer puts that tray on the line, it goes into the next room, it’s identified by a vision system, and it goes to the sealer to be closed up and packed into a box.”

The process no longer requires two people on every line, but it also better maintains product quality. “They don’t have all these extra people handling the product, and it enables them to handle the capacity that they originally planned on without having a bunch of extra costs for people.”

There’s still a price to pay

Something we should not neglect to mention is that small does not necessarily mean cheap. These relatively small automation projects can still come with some significant initial and ongoing costs.

“The more automated you get, there’s a price to pay upfront,” says Scott Wever, manager of manufacturing engineering at Hixson. “But if they can take that hit on that capital side, they’d be able to see those benefits of not needing as large a workforce or automating part of the process to make it easier on your workers.”

Smaller brand owners might not have the budget to take on automation projects that larger manufacturers do, but there are still steps they can take. Consider approaching an equipment supplier, explaining your operation, and finding out if there’s an entry-level system that provides enough flexibility to grow into it, Wever recommends. “That’s the goal is to put something in with the flexibility of being able to add capital as you go for the next several years,” he says.

Any given automation project might not have the budget to move beyond its initial scope, but it’s important to evaluate what that will mean beyond that one project. “I’ve seen it go wrong—where you add all this time and effort and money upfront to increase your throughput, and now your back end is not set up for it,” Bennett says. “All the cost is still there; it’s just in a different room.”

With small amounts of automation, a lot of projects have a payback period of just three to six months, notes Taylor Keaten, principal of Launch Partners, speaking during a panel discussion at the latest Emerging Brands Summit. “You can take the money that you’re saving from the first small project to fund the next-level project,” he says.

That does work with smaller projects, Moses agrees. “We have a customer right now who is looking to automate cleaning, and that’s kind of how they’re breaking it up,” he says. “We’ve got a series of four projects with cleaning as a great way you can invest a little capital. Instead of having a crew come in, open up a kettle, spray it down, and heat water and run it through there, you can buy a CIP [clean-in-place] skid and validate a cleaning procedure. And now, instead of having an operator or cleaning crew actively doing that, they can push a button and it all goes and it all records automatically.”

The CIP skid example enables the manufacturer not only to save time and labor, the automated system also records all parameters automatically, making it easy to keep records for auditing purposes. “It allows them to not just be efficient, but it allows for reproducibility and repeatability,” Kulkarni notes. “That becomes a big one, especially if you’re talking to the reviewers. They want those records. How do you validate that this is clean?”

Another step for the customer is a recipe management system. Currently, there’s a lot of manual movement of ingredients, along with recording those movements. “If you could invest in some load cells or some flow meters, that’s a relatively minor investment,” Moses says. “Maybe you need some temperature controllers, some control systems, and then the software to drive that. That’s another way that you can reduce labor but also increase consistency.”

Technology advancements are also enabling reduced ROI times in some cases, Kulkarni contends. “We have a client who, in the past, was absolutely against AGVs [automated guided vehicles] because they could not justify the cost,” he says. “But the cost has come down so significantly—not just the equipment, but setting up the infrastructure. I don’t need the wires in the ground anymore. I don’t even need the triangulation. I don’t need the lights. So the infrastructure costs have gone down, the changes to the facility have gone down or almost eliminated. So now the ROI looks like not five or seven years, but 18 months.”

You might also find that some larger-cost projects are still worth the investment. “We have one client that has a two-step cooling process. They’re using legacy equipment, where they chill the product to get it down to a food-safe temperature, and then a blast freezer. They’re looking to replace that two step with a one step just through a spiral freezer,” Moses says. “That is not something cheap—that’s going to be probably a seven-figure operation. But it’s not going to be multi-million dollars.” And it will be worth it to save the labor of constantly taking product out of the first cooling unit to move it to a blast freezer.

Automation projects naturally lead to other automation projects. “Automation exposes problems in the process,” Newcome notes. “Automation likes consistency. We have a lot of flexibility because of the technologies we use for sensing position of product, but it still has to be controlled to an extent. It’s product flow control, and if there are large gaps in your production, it’s understanding how all of that works and optimizing all of that. Our best customers are the ones that recognize that and see the benefit of the automation.”

Newcome recommends going into the first automation project with an open mindset that something else might have to change upstream or downstream from that process in order to get the full benefit.

Connecting all the automation pieces

Even if you’re undertaking what might seem like one-off automation projects, it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind.

“As a company grows, what they often run into is what we call islands of automation,” Moses notes. “So when they get to a point where they want to open a second facility, where they want to start using that data at a corporate level, then you want to start to think about Ethernet drops and bringing that all together. That will give your corporate functions visibility into where your bottlenecks are, what’s truly running. And that will help drive some of those projects.”

It's also best not to save this connected line of thinking for later, or you might end up with a mess on your hands. “When you start buying that first piece, have that line of sight to the next piece,” Moses says. “It’s usually simpler if you go with one control system, software provider, etc., because then you train your people on that and they’re used to working with that. And as you get bigger, you can leverage pricing.”

Wever recommends getting somebody in to map out your overall plan. “If you don’t have a proper integrator involved in being able to piece all of that together and make sure you’re handshaking all the way down the line, you’re not going to be successful and your OEE is going to go into the basement,” he says. “You’re not going to have the opportunity to run efficiently.”

Other considerations

Sometimes, of course, automation is not the answer. A production line with a high mix of products, for example, isn’t going to be as good a candidate for robotics and automation as another line with low mix and high volumes.

Other times, it’s not necessarily automation that’s needed, but rather just a remapping of production to improve efficiencies.

“We have seen many times that companies grow organically, and not a lot of thought is given to the layout,” Kulkarni says. “You’re just taking a step back and figuring out: Is your layout designed in a way that will allow for operational efficiencies, as opposed to sticking that equipment there because you have the space? We have done many, many projects where it was a simple change of how the conveyors are laid out, or how equipment should be shaped in a U so that I can have the same person man two different sites. It’s not automation at that point, but it’s still operational efficiencies that help reduce the reliance on labor or improve the utilization of the current labor.”

Automation won’t fix all problems, and it won’t always be for everyone, says Nathan Arnold, director of client development for Hixson, who tells a story of a potential customer that wanted to continue doing things the way it had for so long. “They had an old, old filler they were using, and the bottles would come off and there’d be all the different levels of product in. It was a very inconsistent fill,” he recalls. “But they had a guy at the end just top of them off with a little pitcher of the product to get them all at the same level.”

This doesn’t sound particularly efficient, but for the small volumes that company was running, they couldn’t find the ROI to invest in a new filling machine. “The person that they had doing that, they were paying $20 an hour. And they ran the line just a couple days a week,” Arnold says. “Yes, automation is beneficial, but some clients just don’t realize the ROI.”

The potential advantages are numerous, however. “I think we’re still scratching the surface,” says JLS’s Newcome. “If I stand back and look holistically at the operation, there are so many areas that are opportunities for automation.”

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