Export opportunities and facility design

While the media describes Australia as the 'food bowl of Asia', the real story paints a different picture.

The reality is that we import more food than we export. Looking at our competitive position in the food trade worldwide isn't encouraging. In the decade 2002-2012, the Australian share in Asian food markets dropped significantly. Similarly, Australia's ranking as food supplier to these countries has slipped; in some cases dramatically so. This indicates Australia's market share in Asia is being usurped by other nations as we fail to capitalise on the demands and opportunities that the food industry offers up.

Further investigation has shown that while global profitability in the food industry has remained relatively constant since 2010. The same cannot be said for food industry profitability in Australia; with rates nearly halving since 2011.

The greatest areas to be addressed by food manufacturers concern Australian labour and energy costs which have skyrocketed in comparison to the rest of the world. While the Emissions Reduction Fund (ERF) will make government funds available to companies to reduce and improve their energy consumption and efficiency, labour cost is a significant issue that requires careful consideration. Thinking differently and designing differently to maximise labour productivity and best utilise technological innovations is one of the many ways food processors can deliver progress in their facilities. 

Thinking differently

Working in the modern food processing industry is about delivering value; value to the supplier, value to the consumer and value to the market. Being the centre of that value equation, food processors must learn to adhere to the old adage and work smarter, not harder; think differently and design differently.

Although the picture seems overly gloomy, the food market provides a huge opportunity for producers and processors if we can increase our ability to compete within the world market. This opportunity lies in the rapid growth of the Asian market and the growing middle class. The Asian middle class will reach 3,228 million people by 2030; roughly 140 times the current Australian population. With this surge in affluence comes greater purchasing power.

The task is clear. The factory of the future must be competitive on a world standard; our labour will always be expensive, so we must seek ways to minimise these costs using technology and improving the productivity of remaining labour positions.

Human-centred design

Human-centred design is a term that speaks to efficient design practices between people and technology; giving attention to the psychological needs of humans. Human-centred design seeks to prioritise people over machine efficiency. When processing is your core business, it is critical to your success that these practices are optimised for the operator, robotics and automation, and the end user.

One principle of human-centred design suggests that greater autonomy over tasks and production methods should be allowed to encourage the implementation of human ingenuity, experience and intelligence (traits of which we are yet to automate). While engineers like to design straight lines, this is not necessarily the best configuration to improve human interaction; in fact it is isolating, and discourages operator cooperation and internal communications. 

A further critical element to the successful implementation of sociotechnical system design is feedback. This provides staff with a rationale for their work, a why; thereby satisfying a number of their psychological needs. 

Working smart

Advancements in robotics, automation and machinery have led to designers increasingly working to satisfy sociotechnical design aspects in order to develop 'smart' devices and systems.  We can begin to see the effects of these innovations in the development of technologies like Baxter and Kuka  products; robots capable of performing repetitive tasks with the same efficiency as current manufacturing robots with the added ability of working safely and intelligently next to people. These collaborative robots offer a level of human-plant interaction that is unprecedented in manufacturing facilities.

The technological level of Automated Guided Vehicles (AGVs) has grown significantly, particularly with the advent of Google electric driverless cars. The application within manufacturing facilities has become more achievable as systems adapt to the infinite variables of working with humans. The safety standards of smart devices utilising such sensor technology has opened the door for the integration of human and robotic logistics systems. 

Big data

Lately, there has been much hype about the mining and analysis of big data within businesses. The benefits of such data collection offers an opportunity for food processors to truly bring their facilities into the technological age of the fourth Industrial Revolution. 

The biggest limitation for accessing data and utilising it to improve production processes and procedures is the wide array of operating systems that are currently utilised. In most facilities there is limited capability for these systems to interact, let alone work together. This complicates the process wherein food manufacturers can access, analyse and interpret data supplied by their production facility. By collating data and implementing a methodology of reporting, food manufacturers have the opportunity to gain significant insight into their entire process on both the macro and micro scales, representing an opportunity for improving efficiency, operations, and subsequently profitability. 

Australian manufacturers must invest in new plant and equipment to stay in the game. We must use the best equipment and embrace the new design paradigm to achieve plants that are better than our competitors. We must get better value from the money we are investing in capital by using modern collaborative project delivery systems. This is how we will build the food facility of the future.

Steve Christie is the director of Process Engineering at Wiley



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