Insights into automation and food supply chain safety

Food & Beverage Industry News spoke with with Tan Aik Jin, Zebra Technologies APAC Vertical Solutions Lead (Manufacturing and Transportation & Logistics) about safety in the food supply chain.

What are some of the key manual tasks in F&B manufacturing that automation can help eliminate, or make much easier?
F&B manufacturing is diverse and can be complex. There are usually several sub-categories within each product portfolio, be it for food or beverage related production activities that have distinctive manufacturing formulae. Key tasks include the preparation of raw ingredients (pre-mix or otherwise) that would subsequently undergo any of these processes within the plant – e.g. mixing, stirring, boiling, baking, frying, steaming, drying, distilling, chilling or freezing followed by canning / bottling including labelling and packaging; readying the product for sale and consumption. Automation solutions vary in complexity and can be deployed from plant store, to production shopfloor and shipping. Automation solutions can support manpower resource constraints, material load movements, improve accuracy and speed during labelling and packaging related activities and ensure quality compliance throughout the workflows within the plant.
What are the most transformative technologies impacting the F&B industry in the next five to ten years?
The COVID-19 pandemic has effectively forced all businesses to consider changes to their operating models, in order to survive and thrive. This includes the need for visibility, connectivity, transparency and accountability that can only be achieved through digitisation and modernisation efforts. A plethora of technologies (both new and ‘old’) are readily available, but selection and deployment is tied to the mission objectives of the F&B operator – i.e. what is truly required in the immediate to mid and long term?

  • The transition from traditional pen and paper data collection to digitised modes is having a huge impact on the industry, enabling data analysis and informed decision making, as well as automation.
  • Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology is enabling manufacturers to read and locate hundreds of assets at once within the plant floor, as well as monitor workflow productivity where human labour is concerned. This enables manufacturers to monitor efficiency levels and undertake proactive remedial initiatives to ensure a consistent quality performance at all times.
  • Newer technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (Machine or Deep Learning) and Blockchain technologies are enabling proactive actionability and informed decision making using historical data, enabling significant productivity increases.
  • The short supply of qualified labour may also create opportunities for advanced robotics applications in the appropriate segments of the industry.

Disruptive events appear to be occurring on a regular basis. The industry must leverage technology where possible to enable closer collaboration with suppliers and even customers due to changing demands.
Zebra’s new study revealed only 2 in 10 consumers have complete confidence that their food is safe to eat. How can traceability technology and supply chain visibility enable companies to earn consumers’ trust?
Food Safety has been the pinnacle of concern for consumers and producers alike, given that consumption of tainted or expired food products can result in severe health related issues. Ensuring safety and compliance starts with visibility – the ability to track and trace products from farm to table as they undergo required processing, in accordance with safety and quality standards prior to sale. Visibility is achieved through real time data collection, which can allow for proactive traceability of products within the supply chain. Traceability must start from the product source, where data is captured from the ubiquitous 1D or 2D barcode, or an RFID tag, that accompanies the product from its source to its final destination. This tag must contain all the available historical data on the product, which is shared with pertinent parties within the supply chain, thereby facilitating tracing and recall related activities when there is a genuine need. Only with a truly collaborative, committed and agile supply chain operation, will safety standards be upheld consistently to ensure safe production and consumption of the product by consumers.

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