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Automating production for plant-based and meat-free foods

With the vegan and vegetarian market gaining ground each year, food and drink manufacturers are having to adapt their processes to meet this new demand. but with a current labour crisis in the UK market, how can automation help them to innovate successfully?

Each year, the exploration and adoption of a plant-based, meat-free diet become more popular.

What was once a niche dietary approach, has now become a norm, with pledges like Veganuary encouraging people to try a vegan diet and the supermarket shelves boasting whole sections of vegan, vegetarian or meat-free products thanks to the increase in new product development.

A growing number of plant-based or vegan products are being launched from some of the biggest mainstream brands and supermarkets and, as a food manufacturer, responding to current market needs and trends with new, innovative product developments can bring its own set of questions surrounding packaging and processing manufacturing equipment.

How can food manufacturers gear up their manufacturing equipment to deliver innovative and delicious foods that not only meet consumer demands but also their own business objectives for efficiency while battling the UK’s current labour crisis in the food and drink industry?

Adjusting production

The number of people adopting a vegan diet in the UK has surged by 300% in the past 2.5 years, with one-third of Brits interested in trying or planning to try, a plant-based diet​, so it’s no surprise that supermarkets like Aldi have “extended their plant-based line-up by 50%”​ to give customers plenty of choices when it comes to their shopping.

However, 52% of food manufacturers say they will have to reduce their production output as a result of the current labour shortage in the UK​, so for some, NPD and tapping into the plant-based revolution may be the last thing on the agenda.

Forty-five per cent of food manufacturers, however, are turning to automation in their production processes​ to reduce their reliance on manual labour that is no longer easily available.

Introducing intelligent automation solutions for the production of plant-based, vegan or meat-free products can make a major contribution to businesses to design efficient, hygienic, and cost-effective production lines, regardless of budget.

What is automation… no, but really?

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Automation tends to conjure up thoughts of high-speed production lines, numerous robots and very little human intervention at all. While this is still part of what automation has to offer, it is by no means the only way in which food production businesses can start to automate their processes for the production of plant-based products. 

Automation can mean the introduction of a machine or system of machines linked together to perform repetitive tasks quicker than its operators. It can also mean introducing machinery to help the operators to perform the same task at a higher frequency – for example, helping to lift heavy weights or products to prevent human injury or the introduction of conveyor systems between workstations to increase the flow of products from one place to another.

Whether you’re producing bean-burgers or sliced cheese alternatives, the overall equipment efficiency (OEE) of the production line also benefits from the introduction of automation systems, not only by increased speed but also on the time that the line is available to work. Robot convergers can enable downstream equipment to work at higher speeds, which increases throughput and ensures empty or poorly sealed packs do not make it past the end of the packaging machine and cause potential line-stopping incidents downstream.

Automation can be implemented at any stage of a line, in all food production facilities, as well as plant-based products, – you are never too small to save big!

Different solutions to meet the same needs

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Plant-based, vegan and meat-free food producers have many machinery operations to consider when introducing automation to the production process and the range of machines available on the market is as wide-ranging and diverse as the different products these machines help to make.

At one end are the producers who are just entering the market and have a relatively diverse range of plant-based, vegan or meat-free products that they process during shorter run times at slower speeds. At the other end are the manufacturers with multiple lines running similar products for long production runs, working at relatively high speeds with established brand and supermarket supplier names within the industry.

For example, the likes of Aldi revealed that its plant-based sales leapt up by 250% in 2021 compared to 2020​. The supermarket had recently extended its plant-based product lineup by 50%, which was influenced by a growing customer demand. Tesco also saw the sales of plant-based cooked meat alternatives rise by nearly 40%​.

When it comes to tapping in to the markets’ needs and product development, both of these scenarios can benefit from automation in one shape or form and it is important to make the distinction that automation does not have to focus on robots, but can be as simple as adding a conveyor belt at one end, all the way up to high-speed lines that include automatic loading into trays and cases at the other.

A holistic approach is the most productive

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The best solution to meet all of these different requirements is one that is specifically designed to meet the exacting standards of the food industry while also being flexible enough to adapt individually to specific needs.

Both ends of the spectrum can be catered for, utilising a selection of complementary pieces of individual equipment that can speed up and increase the efficiency of a low throughput line, through to supplying a fully integrated high-speed, fully automatic packaging line.

A single-source automation provider who can fully understand and provide solutions for the complete process is essential as they can offer several benefits over a system that is designed using equipment from different suppliers.

From bean-burgers to soya-sausages, to sliced cheese alternatives – however you choose to pack or form your products, Multivac has a wide range of packaging and processing solutions suitable for the production of meat-free, vegan and vegetarian products. The Multivac product portfolio compromises a wide range of best-in-class technology that allows the company to provide efficient line integration, including third-party equipment, managed by a dedicated team of technical project managers.

To learn more, watch the video below or visit MULTIVAC’s website here​ for more information.

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