Automation for zero touch: Improving safety, quality and efficiency in F&B
Published on 15 March, 2021 in Flexible Manufacturing
Recent innovations in automation, robotics, image processing and artificial intelligence (AI) can help companies to migrate towards zero touch processes.
Companies and manufacturers worldwide in the food, beverage and commodities sectors are looking for new ways to automate manual activities as they move towards zero touch. This will help and protect employees, optimise processes and improve product quality. However, to achieve zero touch, suitable technology is needed.
Improving working conditions
Moving towards zero touch has several benefits for employees. They are a company’s most valuable asset, so it’s important to devise strategies for deploying or retraining them to carry out more value-adding tasks. The numerous manual tasks in the production environment tie up valuable staff resources and impede efficiency and hygiene and safety compliance. Manual processes are often cost-intensive, risky and expensive. And many routine tasks can rapidly become boring or frustrating and don’t make the best use of employees’ skills. But which processes should be automated to improve efficiency, safety and sustainability?
Examples of repetitive manual tasks include sorting and classifying goods; and aligning, orienting, filling and labelling containers. Others include lifting and handling boxes and cartons; replenishment; moving finished goods; and quality inspection and warehousing. As employees interact with machines and stand for many hours, there’s an increased risk of postural harm or accidents – which can also reduce productivity.
Automating repetitive processes
Repetitive processes must become more efficient. Robotics and automation solutions can help by transporting, sorting or palletising loads, both in mass and customised production. For example, fully automated solutions can be used in high-speed lines. These include industrial robotics, high-speed pick-and-place applications, smart conveyor belts, integrated machine robot control, and data analysis at machine level (AI). In customer-specific environments, mobile robots provide flexibility, as they can adapt to change faster and better than permanently mounted industrial robots.
Mobile robots can transport goods and raw materials. Some 95 million working days a year are lost through injuries to employees moving around the factory or warehouse. Modern solutions can greatly reduce these risks. Autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) transport products rapidly, and dispose of waste or move finished packages. AMR fleets and mobile manipulators (cobots plus mobile robots) also support quality control, traceability, order management, fulfillment and warehousing.
For example, the leading Dutch fruit and vegetable wholesaler, Combilo, has a packaging line with state-of-the-art robotic and vision solutions from OMRON that have increased productivity by 30%. The new zero touch approach protects employees from risky, repetitive and physically demanding tasks whilst minimising costs. It also frees them for more value-added tasks.
Zero touch strategies help to make companies more competitive and future-proof, reducing recalls and protecting their brands. A major challenge today is to provide consumers with safe, sustainably sourced and healthy food. Product quality and safety must meet increasingly strict regulations. Meanwhile, consumers are demanding product, supplier and supply chain transparency. The more often employees touch a product during manufacturing, packaging or labelling, the more likely it is that recalls or returns will occur. Damaged packaging or non-compliant labels are also areas where improvements could be made.
Using technology to improve quality
To avoid contamination and soiling, goods and raw materials should be sorted or transported mechanically rather than manually. Labelling and quality control can be handled by automatic systems, camera and robotic solutions to minimise human contact. Innovative camera solutions can also detect contaminants on products or in containers much more accurately than employees. High-performance inspection systems provide support; and a single controller can take over various tasks at different locations and times, which isn’t possible for employees.
Another risk is biological contamination. Again, robotics can eliminate direct contact with the product. In mass production lines, this can be achieved with high-speed industrial robots, integrated automation systems and high-performance inspection systems. In specialised lines, cobots equipped with smart cameras ensure hygienically clean pick-and-place processes. The smart camera technology combines quality control, code and digit reading in a single step. AI-supported automated and scalable quality control ensures increased accuracy, as errors are no longer overlooked.
As an example, Seafood Parlevliet is a fish processing plant that uses the latest technology. Its automated assembly line includes various OMRON components, including a vision system and cameras, together with lighting and customised vision software for visual inspections during the process. These ensure that the fish fillets meet Seafood’s high quality standards.
A study by the Fraunhofer Institute, ‘50 trends influencing Europe's food sector by 2035’, concludes that AI and machine learning (ML) will significantly influence future food production. New technologies could considerably improve the quality and freshness of food and reduce waste. Similarly, AI and ML will help a zero touch approach to deliver a smarter and more sustainable use of resources whilst also helping to optimise products and brand image.
Would you like to know more about practical examples of automation projects in the food and beverage industry?