Arguments surrounding operator safety, food safety and plant efficiency point to the benefits of an automated bulk materials handling system over a manually operated one.
But factor in the cost equation, and the apparent benefits of automation are overridden by the large expense involved in equipment upgrades, maintenance, and hardware and software platforms, despite claims by suppliers that automation offers a fast return on investment.
From the point of view of many small and small-to-medium enterprises with relatively low outputs, a manually operated system offers a cost-effective solution to many materials handling requirements such as storage and retrieval, weighing and recipe formulation.
Larger manufacturers, on the other hand, are increasingly discovering the benefits of automating.
Jarrod Edward, operations manager at Byron Bay Cookie Company (BBCC), a medium-sized manufacturer with 70 employees, says large companies will always try and automate where they can.
“If money is not an option then automation will always win over manual,” he said.
BBCC currently employs a manual bulk materials handling system, receiving flour, sugar and other ingredients on pallets in 25kg bags.
However, the company plans to implement an automated bulk materials handling system in coming years in line with its growth predictions.
The company values the simplicity of manual operation while also regarding the move to an automated system as inevitable to ensure future plant productivity.
In light of this, it is important to consider the advantages and disadvantages of the two competing systems.
The manual handling of materials in bulk bags is commonplace in smaller manufacturing plants and can simplifying the tracking of stock.
“With our current system, which involves receiving ingredients like flour and sugar inmanually handled 25kg bags, it is easy to keep track of what we are receiving and using,” BBCC’s Edward said.
“A pallet with X amount of bags weighs X amount, which is quite simple.”
If, and when, the company moves to having its ingredients delivered on a truck it anticipates significant costs associated with purchasing a weigh bridge, among other equipment.
He adds that the manual handling of bags, including the emptying, weighing and pouring of different dry ingredients into mixers, can reduce product waste compared with an automated approach using conveyors that can be prone to product loss.
The most obvious and immediate benefit, however, is the cost effectiveness of manual handling.
It does not involve the upfront cost of equipment, and hardware and software platforms like programmable logic controllers (PLCs) and other electrical controllers, making it an ideal solution for smaller companies that might find it difficult to achieve a fast return on investment.
A manual system also offers a significant amount of flexibility in recipe formulation without the capital investment of automation.
For instance, a recipe containing 10 ingredients involves a worker sourcing ingredients from 10 different bags, weighing off the correct amounts and tipping them into a mixer.
If another recipe needs to be made with 10 different ingredients, the same process is simply repeated in another mixer, or in the same one after cleaning it.
With automation, a recipe containing 10 ingredients would require 10 separate feeders to draw the ingredients from the hoppers to the mixer.
If another recipe containing 10 different ingredients was called for, another set of equipment would be needed, adding to the system’s expense.
“The system could be cleaned out but that causes production downtime issues and also increases the risk of cross contamination,” Fresco Systems general manager Ken Hetherington said.
While the initial upfront cost of implementing an automated system may be daunting, Hetherington comments that smaller manufacturers are discovering the benefits of automating parts, or a part, of their process.
“A dairy manufacturer that uses a high content of milk powder could choose to automate the handling of that product exclusively,” Hetherington explained.
“This would cover off 90% of its manual handling requirements for significantly less capital cost.”
Manual bulk materials handling solutions have a place in food manufacturing plants, though its benefits are relative, depending on the size of the company and its output requirements.
An automated system boasts numerous benefits with few drawbacks for the operator.
Cost considerations aside, BBCC realises the significant productivity gains associated with going auto.
The most notable benefits are those to do with operator safety, food safety and recipe accuracy, says BBCC.
In fact, it is these factors alone that have lead BBCC to consider implementing a semi-automated system in the future.
“We have some occupational health and safety issues that we want to address such as the lifting of heavy bags,” Edward explained.
“Currently our workers are lifting X amount of 25kg bags of flour and sugar all day which means, depending whether they are rotating or not, an individual could be lifting upwards of 225kg per day which increases the risk of worker injury.”
Workcover New South Wales’ Manual Handling Risk Guide states that in NSW alone approximately 17,000 workers are injured as a result of materials handling each year, resulting in $370 million being paid out in compensation claims.
Despite large upfront costs, improving worker safety by employing machinery to replace manual handling can result in significant savings for the company.
“By reducing the amount of OH&S issues you have and claims through workcover, you can reduce your workcover premium and insurance costs,” Edward commented.
Accuracy and food safety
As in any process, the fewer steps there are in processing and human handling, the less chances there are for mistakes and cross contamination to occur.
George Weston’s Tip Top bakery in Sydney uses an automated bulk delivery system that offers reliability, speed and accuracy of weight and recipe specifications.
“Using an automated weighing system we are able to achieve an accuracy of 0.001%, which is important for product consistency as well as ensuring you are not wasting product,” Tip Top Bakeries Sydney manufacturing manager Adrian Smith said.
BBCC, on the other hand, relies entirely on the operators who prepare batches to take an ‘honesty approach’ to ensure recipe accuracy.
“If someone makes an error like adding an extra 10kg of flour we depend on them coming forward,” BBCC’s Edward said.
“But this will not always be the case and could result in food safety and productivity implications.”
Human involvement also increases the opportunity for foreign-matter contamination, particularly while opening bags and transferring product into the mixer.
An effective bulk materials handling solution is one which assists in the productivity of plant integration.
By integrating its materials handling system with a Supervisory Control And Data Acquisition system (SCADA), the Tip Top bakery is able to keep track of equipment operation, ingredient and product quality, and general plant activity.
Batch coding also gives the company track and trace capabilities throughout an entire line and automatic reporting contributes to overall efficiency.
BBCC regards PC control and integration as one of the main benefits automation offers over manual handling, signalling the end of human interface monitoring and paper trails.
Manufacturers and suppliers alike say automation is gaining momentum in the food industry and that demand will continue to grow in line with OH&S concerns, labour issues, food safety issues and to enhance overall plant efficiency.
However, the growth of automation in bulk materials handling will not render manual systems obsolete, as smaller companies find them more cost effective.
Many companies also find benefit in semi-automating their plants and keeping systems like sieving manual, in order to exercise greater control.
Most importantly, the system should be well supported by a high level of competency from both supplier and manufacturer, and be geared towards company growth.