Automation Trends in a post COVID-19 Market

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By: Govindarajan Parthasarathy -- Principal Analyst

01 December, 2021

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Automation Trends in a  post COVID-19 Market
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Due to increased emphasis on safety and hygiene during the pandemic, food manufacturers have gained awareness of the fact that automation can increase efficiency in such processes. There is scope for increased production of ready-to-eat foods in particular, while reducing waste. The food industry’s chief goals are to reduce contamination risks and human errors by automation, thereby streamlining efficiency, but without reducing human labor to uphold ethics. Automation affords predictability and traceability which can be enhanced with lean manufacturing practices.

The initial cost of automated solutions is on the higher side but despite the initial high costs of investment for automation, it can help reduce the labor costs. Strong demand from other industries for automation can also competitively reduce costs. The food manufacturers can consider sourcing from farmers who have implemented blockchain technology, a distributed ledger and unalterable peer-to-peer recordkeeping system for information sharing in the supply chain. Solutions for food safety management include automating the cleaning process as well as regulation of the timing and monitoring temperature of all food storage and prep areas. Training programmes can be conducted to ensure staff are up-to-date on the latest technologies.

There are several challenges for automation, such as the high capital investment and the negative perception that it may replace human labor. However, the two major segments within the food industry that can be considered as amenable to automation are packaging and meat processing. Owing to the high demand for hygiene and health awareness, consumers are likely to prefer packaging which has had minimal human contact, as well as meat products which are produced in automated facilities where the probability of contamination is minimal. Hence, these two segments are likely exhibit an increased rate of adoption in the future.

Automation reduces labor cost, which in turn allows the manufacturer to increase investments and demand for products due to lesser prices, thus potentially aiding employment opportunities in alternate areas such as R&D.

Impact of COVID-19 on Automation Adoption in the Food Industry1,2,3

Food Safety, Hygiene and Quality1

  • Due to increased emphasis on safety and hygiene during the pandemic, food manufacturers have gained awareness of the fact that automation can increase efficiency in such processes
  • Automation reduces physical touching of raw materials and increases scope for cleanliness of final product
  • Automation of tasks such as packaging can minimize human contact and contamination risks

Scalability1

  • With increase in demand for foods, automation offers a viable means for increasing scale of production
  • There is scope for increased production of ready-to-eat foods in particular, while reducing waste

Steps taken by Food Manufacturers2,3

  • Tyson Foods, which accounts for 20% of domestic chicken, beef and pork production in the US, has invested more than $500 million in automation
  • McDonald’s has expressed an ambition to use automation and connectivity technologies in order to address wait times
  • Automation is particularly an area of focus for QSRs to increase safety and consistency

Automation as the Future

  • COVID-19 is the primary factor driving the demand for automation in the food industry, but this accelerated trend is unlikely to slow down even after the pandemic
  • The food industry’s chief goals are to reduce contamination risks and human errors by automation, thereby streamlining efficiency, but without reducing human labor to uphold ethics
  • Automation affords predictability and traceability which can be enhanced with lean manufacturing practices
  • The culmination of these practices is a reduction in cost and increase in quality as well as efficiency

Sources: Articles from 3 Partners (3P), Brookings and Motion Control Tips

Major Challenges for Automation of Food Industry4,5,6,7,8,9

Challenges

Trend Description

Potential Opportunities for Brands

Flexibility and Cost

  • The initial cost of automated solutions is on the higher side
  • Existing automated systems lack flexibility to adapt to changing needs
  • The food industry is labor intensive and thus labor costs are a major concern for food manufacturer. Despite the initial high costs of investment for automation, it can help reduce the labor costs

  • Strong demand from other industries for automation can also competitively reduce costs

  • Some robotic solution providers like OAL are offering flexible modular automated solutions to overcome the challenge of adapting to changing needs

Regulatory Requirements

  • The food safety modernization act require food manufacturers to anticipate, remediate, track, measure, and report on threats

  • Some of these functions can be automated but the availability of tools to execute such functions still remains an issue

  • The food manufacturers can consider sourcing from farmers who have implemented blockchain technology, a distributed ledger and unalterable peer-to-peer recordkeeping system for information sharing in the supply chain

  • Solutions for food safety management include automating the cleaning process as well as regulation of the timing and monitoring temperature of all food storage and prep areas

  • Equipment maintenance can also be automated to ensure hygiene. There are also apps covering HACCP mandates and FSMA compliance steps

Staff Adaptibility

  • Much of the staff may be untrained or unskilled in operating the machines

  • In addition, automation may create a negative perception that it may replace manpower and minimize job opportunities

  • Training programmes can be conducted to ensure staff are up-to-date on the latest technologies

  • Automation reduces labor cost, which in turn allows the manufacturer to increase investments and demand for products due to lesser prices, thus potentially aiding employment opportunities in alternate areas such as R&D

  • Existing staff are also required for tasks that cannot be automated, leading to growth in skills

Sources: Articles from Automation World, Concept System Inc., Control Engineering, Food Processing, OAL Group and Nextec

Major Current Applications of Automation within the Food Industry10,11,12,13

Packaging

  • Brands Robotics are used in primary packaging, during the packing of food into its wrapper and vacuum sealed bags

  • Approximately 33% of global food processing operations and all food packaging operations use robotics technologies

  • With increasing raw material costs, robotics have become an attractive option for packaging as they minimize human contact and hence chances of wastage and recalls due to contamination

Meat Processing

  • Robots used in meat processing eviscerate 360 carcasses per hour and are also used for processing and deboning functions

  • Robots enable deboning of chicken by dismantling and doesn’t cut the meat off the bone, which improves quality of final product

  •  Major suppliers JBS are planning to implement more robotics in their operations to minimize contamination on account of safety concerns during the pandemic

Dairy Processing

  • Cheese processing is one major area within food production that employs robotics, with robots being capable of portioning upto 12,000 cheese portions an hour

  • Robotics can be employed for stirring curds, slicing cheese, and packaging

  • Wisconsin Cheese Group (WCG) uses robots for picking packaged products at speeds of 120 cycles/minute using visual line tracking    

Foodservice

  • Cooking robotics market is valued at approximately $10-15 billion with the US accounting for ~50% of the market share

  • Robots can be used in the kitchen of restaurants for various functions like mixing and cutting but this is still in a nascent stage of development

  • Moley, a UK based robotics company, offers innovative, advanced and functional robots integrated into a professional kitchen

Sources: Articles from Control Engineering, Food Dive, IFT and Packaging Digest

Key Takeaway for Brands12

Q1. What is the feasibility of automation for food manufacturers?

A: There are several challenges for automation, such as the high capital investment and the negative perception that it may replace human labor. However, the two major segments within the food industry that can be considered as amenable to automation are packaging and meat processing. Owing to the high demand for hygiene and health awareness, consumers are likely to prefer packaging which has had minimal human contact, as well as meat products which are produced in automated facilities where the probability of contamination is minimal. Hence, these two segments are likely exhibit an increased rate of adoption in the future.

Q2. What are the factors to be considered while switching to automation?

A: Capital cost, final product cost, feasibility of training programs for personnel and hygiene standards based on regional regulations.

References

  1. https://3ppartners.com/how-covid-19-has-accelerated-the-adoption-of-automation-in-the-food-industry/

  2. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/11/23/automation-from-farm-to-table-technologys-impact-on-the-food-industry/

  3. https://www.motioncontroltips.com/automation-putting-faster-in-the-fast-food-industry/

  4. https://conceptsystemsinc.com/food-industry-automation-trends-greater-adoption-and-new-applications/?v=a284e24d5f46

  5. https://www.foodprocessing.com/articles/2020/food-industry-struggles-with-barriers-to-automation/

  6. https://www.oalgroup.com/news1/top-3-automation-challenges-facing-food-manufacturing

  7. https://www.nextecgroup.com/automation-challenges-food-beverage-industry/

  8. https://www.automationworld.com/products/data/article/13317878/food-safety-for-the-21st-century

  9. https://www.nextecgroup.com/automation-challenges-food-beverage-industry/

  10. https://www.controleng.com/articles/human-impact-role-of-workers-with-robotics/

  11. https://www.ift.org/news-and-publications/food-technology-magazine/issues/2017/october/columns/processing-robotics-food-beverage-processing-foodservice

  12. https://www.fooddive.com/news/meat-processors-expedite-automation-as-pandemic-increases/588166/

  13. https://www.packagingdigest.com/how-robotics-boosted-production-cheese-producer

 

 

 

 

 

 




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