Why automate? Depending on your perspective, the question might sound stupid and the answer obvious. And yet, given that most operations consider automation at a point where they are already doing very nicely, thank you, the idea can usefully be reformulated as: 'Why fix it (at considerable cost), if it ain't broke?'
Most facilities, large and small, recognise the value of early, 'easy' wins in packaging and end-of-line automation. Taking ingredients through the various process stages is inevitably more complex and introduces more variables.
Of course, there are factories that have seen huge increases in yield, quality improvements and significant cost reductions thanks to high-tech investment. In many categories, this is now the norm.
As Ian Nicholls, newly appointed md at the Centre for Food Robotics and Automation (CenFRA), puts it: "There is already a strong presence of automation in the food industry, particularly in high-volume operations like bakeries, dairies and confectionery production. In fact, the level of automation is often viewed as a barrier to entry for new competitors."
But for manufacturers supplying other categories, how do you identify where automation would bring benefits, and where not? And how do larger manufacturers choose between the different levels of control, data acquisition and integration that are on offer?
In fact, even the 'why do it?' question is not as straightforward as it might seem. At Dutch-based systems integrator Abar Automation, commercial director Brian Hill states: "Where we come in, generally, is over questions of labour utilisation. If there's more than one person doing an operation, there's a fair chance that automation would make sense. If it's going into a second shift, that's another 'tick in the box' for us. If it's going into weekends, even more so."
Meanwhile, CenFRA's Nicholls takes a refreshingly people-centred view. "Managers will tend to think in terms of a machine replacing a number of people," he says. "Those are trained, skilled operators, and whatever your level of growth, you're going to need trained personnel. My advice is, don't look at automation as headcount reduction, but capacity increase."
Nicholls adds that, being able to offer increased levels of customer satisfaction through improved accuracy, consistency, and overall quality is also a key benefit.
Back at Abar, Hill recalls an automation project at a sandwich manufacturer. Using robots cuts the incidence of complaints for instance, there are zero customer claims of human hairs in the product. "The original driver for automation was labour reduction," he says. "But this was a significant spinoff effect."
At the higher reaches of line automation and control, a manufacturer's chosen level of sophistication and investment can be influenced by a number of factors. Says Mark Daniels, manager of automation products at Rockwell Automation: "The challenge is often to see what makes a good return on investment. For instance, we are seeing more of a focus on energy and water as variable rather than fixed costs, with manufacturers wanting to put a value on that."
Daniels also contrasts control, data and information. "Control is control, and many vendors can provide that," he says. "Fewer will be able to provide you with a wealth of information that can be of real benefit."
He adds: "There's a big push towards getting data that's far closer to the process in real time. People are moving towards key performance indicator (KPI) 'dashboards'." These can be at any level, from the operator troubleshooting specific issues to the boss overseeing general operational efficiencies.
Daniels points to Rockwell's Digital Blending technology as an example of higher-level automation offering specific benefits. "Effectively, the raw ingredients are mixed on-the-fly in the process," he says. "It means there's less wastage, and you can respond more quickly to the changing demands of the marketing department." The system is typically used in liquid handling, he says, and areas such as chocolate making.
"A lot of the usefulness of automation, where it hasn't existed before, is in increasing flexibility and reducing waste," says Daniels. "You may also find you can provide greater consistency."
At automation specialist RTS group, project manager Etienne Croquette emphasises this issue of reduced wastage and increased yield. He cites the example of a ready meals factory where RTS was asked to provide a control system upgrade. This was for the system depositing potato on top of a shepherd's pie. "The client wanted to move to a more accurate servo drive system, so the pattern of product could be laid down faster and more precisely," he says. "Better control over the process meant higher yield."
Despite all these sound justifications, there are still barriers to automation. So what are they, and how can they be overcome?
"Bad news spreads quickly, while successful operations will tend to want to keep quiet about their success," says Hill at Abar. "There is often a fear barrier with factory managers who haven't used robots before. We try to take them into a plant where they've been running for a while in order to get over that."
When it comes to automated systems, and especially robotics, Croquette at RTS sees the barrier as 'inadequacy' rather than 'fear'. "A lot of food companies don't have the people. They will have operations managers rather than engineering managers. And the engineers they do have are going to be more geared to maintenance. Not many of them have managers who can take a step back and look at the whole operation."
He goes on: "You need people high up in the company who have a bee in their bonnet about automation. But they need to be committed, and have a clear vision of the endgame."
That endgame should, of course, not be automation for its own sake. Says Nicholls at CenFRA: "It makes sense to automate reliable, predictable, stable processes, rather than those which are out of control or erratic. Nor does it make sense to automate processes which contain lots of non-value-adding waste."
CenFRA says it prefers to work initially with its clients to evaluate their processes and put some benchmark KPIs in place.
"They need to work through an improvement programme and if necessary re-engineer the process so that it becomes really slick," says Nicholls. "We call that 'preparation for automation', and a lot of it can be carried out for little or no investment. Then, when the process is running properly, that's the time to automate."
Or, as can happen, an audit may indicate that there is no good reason to automate a given line or process at all. Daniels at Rockwell gives the example of a brewing process which consumes a certain amount of energy and water. "It may not be an automation solution which produces a step-change, but rather better rerouting of elements in the process," he says.
Croquette at RTS returns to the double-edged question of the workforce. On the one hand, this can be one of the barriers to automation. "We developed a hygienic gripper system for placing sheets of pasta into lasagne, replacing a manual operation in a ready meals factory," he says. "It was a good potential process for automation."
But even though the upstream pasta production process was fully automated, the manager in question was reluctant to move away from using operators perhaps worrying about the quantity or quality of product from a robotic system, says Croquette, characterising this type of barrier as "cultural".
On the other hand, he says: "One of our goals is to replace what can beneficially be replaced, but to respect manual labour where it actually does the best job." He recalls a visit to a smoked salmon processing plant, where robots were being installed to shingle the slices of fish. "But you look at the filleting operation, and it's highly skilled. No fish stays on the skin. Theirs is a job that's safe for a very long time," he predicts.
Another contentious overlap between operators and automation is training. Nicholls at CenFRA argues: "You need to allow staff to train up in order to use the new systems, and now there's much more of that training available." CenFRA itself offers training in control, diagnostics and other functions.
But Hill at Abar sees the human factor here very differently. "If it takes longer than 20 minutes to half an hour to train staff, then we believe that means it's too complicated for the food industry," he says. The constant turnover in personnel, including agency staff, makes this a particular issue in the sector, he points out, adding ominously: "An installation can fail purely because it's too complicated."
One way or another, it seems, successful automation has to work with and around the workforce, not against it. Whether it feels that way to staff on the factory floor, of course, is quite another matter.
Abar Automation 00 31 2040 72040
CenFRA 01302 765680
Rockwell Automation 0870 242 5004
RTS 0161 777 2045