Why the food sector should invest in automation

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Andy Macpherson, Industry Manager for Food & Beverage at Festo, offers some advice for key decision-makers wishing to implement a smart factory strategy.

Businesses need regular investment to thrive and survive, but deciding where and when to inject the cash can be a tough call. Two key drivers for the food processing sector are the looming skills shortage and the constant pressure to produce high-quality, reliable, and healthy foods with total traceability. Increased automation can address these issues by reducing human interventions and removing inefficiencies and overheads – particularly where the work is repetitive and low-skilled. 

Smart factories do not just improve production and overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). The following benefits should also form part of the business case: 

  • Increase uptime: digitalisation reduces unplanned downtime by predicting device failures before they happen. This can save up to 20% in maintenance time and reduce consequential losses due to unplanned stoppages. 
  • Improve reliability: parameters such as vibration, noise, temperature and energy consumption can be monitored constantly. Production lines can therefore run effortlessly at higher performance levels for longer periods with less human interaction.
  • Optimise production: digitalisation enables continuous improvements that enhance production cycle times, optimising daily output. More accurate and streamlined production results in less wastage, improving the bottom line. 
  • Enhance quality: automation and digitalisation reduce human error and enhances traceability. Recipes and processes are pre-determined, and processes are monitored as they pass through each stage so that any deviation can be assessed and corrected immediately. 
  • Reduce waste: product defects can be identified and rectified quickly using automation and digitalisation. This reduces waste, avoids recalls and maximises profits. What would reducing “give away” by just 1% mean to your bottom line?
  • Improve agility: automation and digitalisation make you more responsive to changes in demand. For example, adapting to seasonal demand spikes using the existing plant. Processes can be reconfigured more quickly to offer flexible ‘individualisation’ of products.
  • Retain staff: automation and digitalisation provide the opportunity to up-skill staff. It frees them to learn more value-added tasks, contributing to staff well-being and career satisfaction and reducing the risk of injuries through repetitive movements or inattention due to boredom. 

When to invest

You don’t need to build a new factory to start investing in – and benefiting from – automation. Upgrading existing machinery is an affordable and manageable place to start. By automating one production line, you begin to collect data and insights on achievable, tangible results: for instance, identifying where process improvements can be made and replicated on other lines.

Be clear about why you are implementing a more automated approach. Are you solving a particular problem, or making the most of new opportunities? And who is driving the project – is it a bottom-up or a top-down process? 

It’s important to start with proof of concepts that can be scaled up when proven. Taking a step-by-step approach ensures factors such as networking, machine-to-machine communications and integration with legacy systems are considered and addressed in a timely and cost-effective way. Phased adoption also enables people to buy into the vision: investment in technology can be negated by resistance from colleagues and employees who do not fully understand the benefits. With the team fully on board, ensure all elements are in place before committing resources. Digital twin simulations can be used to model production line changes, ensuring automation will work before interrupting production.

In conclusion

Food processors should not wait until they are building a new facility to implement automation digitalisation. The benefits of adoption in terms of process improvements, return on investment, and being more responsive to market fluctuations are compelling. 

To ensure that investment in automation and digitalisation is successful, make sure you have a clear vision and purpose, that you communicate that vision to the team and sense-check that the proposed investment will achieve the desired outcomes by working with an automation specialist like Festo.

By following these steps, decision-makers can be assured that their automation strategy will be a lasting legacy, delivering all the benefits of a smart factory and giving their business a competitive advantage.

Further steps on putting Industry 4.0 into practice can be found in Festo’s whitepaper Practical Tips for Industry 4.0 implementation

www.festo.co.uk/I4practicaltips.

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