News Feature | May 13, 2015

Automated Processes Improve Throughput At Food Plants

By Isaac Fletcher, contributing writer, Food Online

Automated Processes Improve Throughput At Food Plants

Food and beverage manufacturers are under continuous pressure to adapt to changing consumer demands while keep costs down and efficiency up. By exploring automated solutions for various parts of production, food makers can achieve greater flexibility, strengthen brand appeal, and improve profit margins.

In recent years, consumer tastes have been evolving and shifting toward trends that require specialty ingredients, packaging of varying sizes, private labeling, and a slew of other offerings from processors. Accordingly, food and beverage manufacturers are being forced to adapt in order to meet the changing demands of consumers. For many operations, manual processes have become too costly and inefficient to remain effective options. In order to cut costs and maintain competitiveness, manufacturers are exploring automation solutions that can increase production and reduce operational costs.

Many forms of automation require upfront investment, a factor that deters some manufacturers from pursuing automated solutions. However, there are three key areas where automation can significantly improve throughput and let the manufacturer recover the initial investment relatively quickly.

Managing Recipes
Traditionally, plant operators have had to carry around paper recipe sheets that are referred to when specifying the ingredients — and weights/portions of those ingredients — to be used to create a specific product. Rather than relying on physical copies of recipes, automating this process by entering the recipes into the plant’s automation system allows full batch sheets to be sent to the operator for viewing at a human-machine interface (HMI). From there, the operator has the ability to set up the plant equipment according to the weights and ingredients that are specified in the recipe.

As ingredients are added, scales that are located within the mixing or cooking kettles weigh the ingredients and automatically compare their weights against those in the batch sheet to ensure that the amounts added are correct. Automating recipe management serves to not only speed up the process, but also reduces human error by a significant margin.

With consumers demanding products that are offered in various sizes and packaging formats, packaging operations can be throttled by downtime caused by manual changeovers. In order to reduce downtime and maintain productivity while providing consumers with the products they want, manufacturers are turning toward automated processes for packaging, carton printing, and case coding.

Automating the packaging process also results in cost reduction and increased productivity. Additionally, by preprogramming printers, packages are automatically coded with the appropriate SKU, date, time stamp, and lot number, allowing for improved tracking and traceability throughout the supply chain, as well as more accurate inventory accounting for the manufacturer.

Like other automation solutions, automated palletizing provides improvements to both speed and efficiency. Additionally, robotic palletizing allows for the building of “truck-high,”100-inch pallets as opposed to the traditional “single-high.” 50-inch pallets that are standard in manual palletizing. By creating truck-high pallets in a single step, the need for two single-high pallets to be stacked on top of one another for truck loading is eliminated, which further improves operational efficiency.