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Food industry focus: To understand the challenges, you need to be on the factory floor

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In Australia, the food and beverage sector accounts for 32 per cent of the country’s total manufacturing turnover and is reported to be worth around $122 billion. New Zealand, on the other hand, is a major food and beverage exporter with the industry accounting for 46 per cent of all goods and services exports.

On the global front, the food processing market is expected to grow by 6.04 per cent (CAGR) between 2020 and 2027. This puts pressure on manufactures to fast-track productivity and improve their efficiencies year-on-year. 

A recent report compiled by Diego Mirabelli, industry manager food for SMC Corporation in Europe, showcased the latest food industry trends and highlighted the challenges in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. It details SMC’s presence on the factory floor to identify the industry’s most pressing automation requirements.  

factory floor
Craig Sheppard, sales and marketing director – SMC Corporation Australia and New Zealand.

What’s trending in food automation? 

Surprisingly, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic saw a positive uptick in automation. 

“Companies are changing the way they work. They’re focused on rapidly and continuously addressing challenges around productivity, downtime, energy savings, safety, hygiene and staying competitive in a tough climate,” explains Craig Sheppard, sales and marketing director from SMC Corporation Australia New Zealand. 

Food security remains an ongoing issue around the world, and Craig believes that automation will play a key role in addressing scarcity in the years to come.  

“Other issues addressed by manufacturers is that of a reliable workforce, and workforce accessibility. Whilst labour is expensive, COVID-19 enforced lockdowns taught some harsh lessons with respect to staff accessing workplaces and the need for social distancing created its own set of challenges – especially in plants where productivity (both day and night) is crucial,” he said. 

While workers will always be needed, many companies are now reassessing the workforce to ensure that they are adding value and making a difference to the company’s bottom line.  

When analysing the shift and embrace of automation, the report by Diego Mirabelli detailed the following as key drivers: 

1. Avoiding downtime 

Most food plants operate 24/7, so a halt in food production can be costly and time consuming. Most areas are arranged in a continuous flow with one area being dependent on the activity of another – from primary material integration, to processing, and finally, packaging. The OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) can be substantially improved by applying digital predictive maintenance solutions, training operators and maximising product reliability. 

When analysing automation on the plant, Diego believes that the most critical component is the actuator. The procedure to replace an actuator is fast (usually 10 minutes) when its within reach and is easily accessible.  In other cases, it can take up to four hours. Of course, the cost of proactively replacing an actuator will usually be a lot less than the cost of a stop in production. 

However, to ensure real-time monitoring and pre-empt any issues before they occur, monitoring sensors need to be included as part of the automation control loop. SMC offers two types of sensors.  

“An induction sensor can calculate the speed of the rod while a pressure sensor can identify any leakages inside the actuators. Here, communication takes place via an IO-link in real-time,” Diego said. 

2. Productivity linked to automation  

While this traditional, fast-paced industry has been lagging in automation penetration, robotics, and its stemmed technology (cobots) are key drivers for enhanced productivity and automation on the factory floor.  

“Some of our team members are dedicated to understanding and developing solutions to complement robotic technologies. We offer gripping technologies and a wide range of plug and play gripper end-effectors for the majority of cobot suppliers,” comments Craig. 

Answering to the call by industry, SMC offers wireless technology for robotics applications allowing for gripper communications via Wi-Fi, allowing for a reduction in weight and faster installation via reduced cabling requirements.   

The next step is to introduce smart technologies combining flexible and quick format changes with high cycle rates and low life cycle costs.  

3. Reducing costs by optimising energy efficiency 

Food factories are energy demanding; they represent 19 per cent of the whole manufacturing industry’s energy consumption. 

“SMC’s energy saving task force can analyse your plant and help you realise savings and efficiency gains,” says Craig.  

Improvement costs may vary but the return on investment is often short. Whilst air leaks are still a common theme, there are other air usage areas of focus that can be can critically assessed, for which SMC provides a wide array of solutions: condition monitoring tools which provide information such as flow rate and pressure; Automatic Leak Detection System (ALDS) which provides near real time leakage monitoring; and a VEX Stand-by Valve, which reduces air consumption during short stops or shuts it off during long ones. 

4. Machine safety and hygiene  

“Safety and automation work hand-in-hand, and safety valves form a fundamental part of our product range,” Craig comments.  

“Although hygiene has always been a central theme, COVID-19 has driven the message home.  Both machine builders and food plants need solutions that are easy to clean and reduce opportunities for contamination.” 

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