Automation is the word du jour. In every publication, at every trade show, and in every conversation we have with customers, the food industry is talking about automation — what to do, when to do it, and how to do it.
If you haven’t jumped on the automation train yet, it’s time to start thinking about it. Here are 5 areas of your food processing plant you should automate as soon as possible.
Does this one take you by surprise? It’s not generally first on the list of food processing automation solutions. However, food safety, quality, and efficiency start at the entrance to your production area, so this is a prime place to begin making improvements. An automatic boot wash system will ensure any potential contaminants stay outside where they belong.
With the development of new technologies, there aren’t many processing activities today that can’t be automated — and most large processing facilities have had a high level of automation for a long time. Smaller processors have been slow to adapt to automated processing lines, partly because of the cost and partly because the machines themselves weren’t available in a smaller size.
But that has changed significantly, and now the same technologies used in large facilities are available for processors of all sizes. For example, at just under 6’x8’, our Micro Spiral OvenTM is the world’s smallest spiral oven, but it still allows small companies to benefit from automated continuous processing. This oven is typically capable of replacing three batch systems, providing significantly higher productivity in a smaller space.
Cleaning and sanitation are arguably the most important activities, other than the actual processing, that takes place in food facilities. CIP systems are already widely used to automate the cleaning of the interior parts of machinery, and many processors are now also automating the cleaning of other equipment like mixing containers, tanks, and vessels. This automation brings myriad benefits — it takes less time than manual cleaning, it does a better job, and it protects workers from exposure to harsh chemicals.
End-of-line production is a popular place to introduce automation, and robots are widely used for picking, packing, and palletizing. This market is expanding rapidly thanks to the development of soft robotics, which can be used to pick and pack even delicate items like fresh fruit.
We started on a somewhat surprising note, so it seems appropriate to end on one, too. Do you have people in your plant collecting data from your equipment (e.g., the temperature inside the refrigerator) and writing it down on clipboards? What happens to that data? Are you using it to improve your processes?
Most food processing machinery today comes equipped with sensors and control systems that can collect data and send it — wirelessly or via Ethernet — to a central database, where software can crunch the numbers and raise an alert if anything seems out of whack. You can also use the data to make data-driven decisions about process improvement. Older machinery can be fitted with sensors, as well, so, even if you’re not ready to invest in new processing equipment, you can still benefit from automated data collection technologies.
Unitherm’s continuous thermal processing systems will help you take advantage of the benefits of automation on your production line. Contact us to learn more.