As manufacturers adjust to new regulations on social distancing measures, machines come to the fore.

When you think of modern advances in technology, electric cars, drones and connected devices are likely the first things to come to mind. Yet without fail, the food industry is fast catching up as it transitions to a sustainable and automated future. This has been in pursuit for higher efficiency, time and labour-saving benefits in operations.

Just a few years back, the automation trend was majorly adopted by the well-established and large food manufacturing outfits who could pump investments in new technologies. However, the winds have quickly changed, as what used to be cutting edge has now become routine in many projects.

There is nothing like a pandemic to cause one to rethink their already well set-out strategies. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic changed the narrative of business as usual in a flash. Economies across the globe momentarily came to a halt, as protocols such as physical distancing, quarantine and isolation, were initiated to curb the spread of the virus.

With minimal interactions, consumers dived into panic buying of essentials goods including processed and packages food, which meant stocks were running out quick in the markets. Some leading food industry players like Conagra Brands, Flower Foods, Tyson Foods, Cargill, Tiger Brands and Pioneer Food Cannery, among others, are reported to have shut down some of their facilities momentarily to ensure safety of their workers and the premises in a time characterised with uncertainties. However, in a bid to keep up with the rising consumer demand, the food industry was identified as an essential sector. Further, the Food and Agriculture Organization confirmed that the risk of consumers becoming infected with Covid-19 from food contact materials or food packaging is between ‘negligible’ and ‘very low’, allowing the continuation of food processing industries.

But being deemed “essential” did not stop a virus that knows no boundaries from spreading. In an industry that has long-been wedded to manual and labour-intensive processes, a reduction of the number of workers on the floor was inevitable. In confined spaces, such as packing plants for fruits and vegetables or meat processing facilities, necessary social distancing measures reduce the efficiency of operations.

For instance, Tyson Foods, a leading meat processing company in the U.S. restricted its pork processing by nearly 50%, and beef production by about 25% in May 2020. Generally, the global food and beverage industry witnessed a sudden drop in output and earnings in the first two quarters of 2020, as restrictions in number of employees were restricted and employees got hit with the pandemic.

Automation gains momentum

These challenges brought to the forefront the vital role that automation could play in the food manufacturing industry, as plants sought ways to operate without heavy reliance on manual labour and innovative techniques that workers could use to access processing facilities remotely.  

Further complicating matters for the food industry, as the Covid-19 pandemic ravaged the factories, governments’ food safety policies and regulations for food processing became more stringent, coupled with increased consumer demand for safe and consistent food quality.

Owing to this, food and beverage sectors have been left with no alternatives but to incorporate food automation processes to deliver bulk quantity and maintain quality, with limited human resources. To this end, the food automation industry has certainly braced itself for a massive adoption, with a recent report by Meticulous Research, indicating that the food automation market is expected to grow at a CAGR of 9.5% from 2020 to 2027 to reach US$29.4 billion by 2027, from US$15.5 billion in 2020.

“Manual practices have long been a bottleneck to efficiency and precision in decision-making across the food supply chain. But the restrictions COVID-19 has placed on business operations have – through necessity – opened minds around what automation can bring to the table, and how it can free up time to focus on what really matters,” Thomas Slaugh, enterprise solutions business development at Proagrica, told FoodNavigator.

Intricate tasks get automated

Recent improvements to robotics and sensor data, combined with data processing and the interpretive power of artificial intelligence, have led to smarter, more efficient ways of processing foods across all sectors.

Some production functions such as packaging have long been heavily automated, with the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies revealing that 94% of food packaging operations are using robotics already. As for food processing, approximately a third of companies are using robotics.

Further to that, technological advances have also expanded the horizon of what automation can achieve in other functions, making it possible to automate intricate tasks that once required human operatives.

To this end, collaborative or secondary processing operations are starting to be automated such as cutting, counting, mixing, picking & placing, grading & sorting, washing, peeling, dispensing, filling and palletizing, conditions control, among others. This is courtesy of the fact that food processing is highly monotonous and repetitive in nature, making technology development process a no-brainer. And the beauty is that the machines can be customized to a specific task or programmed to have room to re-adjustment when need be.

“Before, we saw large stationary machines; now with automation and robotics, we see small, modular machines that do specific processes. This adds versatility as companies can focus on one pain point and use technology to solve an issue,” Miguel Lutz, territory sales manager at Unifiller Systems told Food Navigator.

According to Jake Norman, head of sales & innovation at machine supplier OAL, the impact of COVID means manufacturers are now looking at whether automation can be applied to almost ‘any critical activity’ that was previously dependent on human operators. “Any critical activity where manufacturers are reliant on operators alone to complete a task is up for review, as manufacturers have had to cope with reduced headcount either through absences or social distancing to protect those on-site throughout the pandemic,” he says.

Other than addressing labour availability concerns, the technological advancements have taken tedious production line tasks and eliminated the risk of human error, contamination and possible accidents. Automation has also aided in the management of supply chains, enabling companies to determine precisely their raw material requirements or stock inventory, based on supply and demand.

Meat processing industry incubator for automation

It is evident that robotics and other modes of automation have played a disruptive role in traditional food manufacturing in the recent times. The meat industry, whose floors have been deemed to be conducive for spread of the coronavirus due to the low temperatures maintained in the vicinities, coupled with workers unavoidably working in close proximities, has been at the forefront in adoption of technology during the pandemic period.

Tyson, the highest-selling U.S. meat company, expanded its investment in automation solutions, with its team undertaking the development of an automated deboning system, destined to handle roughly 39 million chickens slaughtered, plucked and sliced up each week in its plants. This was an addition to the US$500 million investment the meat processor had channelled towards upscaling.

Meanwhile, the company’s venture capital arm recently participated in a US$10 million series B funding extension for Soft Robotics, a provider of artificial intelligence-enabled robotic automation for food processing. The round was co-led by Material Impact, Scale Venture Partners and Calibrate Ventures. ABB Technology Ventures and Tekfen Ventures joined Tyson Ventures as additional investors. Soft Robotics’ SoftAI technology uses AI and 3D vision to manoeuvre the company’s mGrip robotic grippers with human-like hand-eye coordination. The technology allows the automation of bulk picking for fragile and irregularly shaped proteins, produce and bakery items. Tyson Foods is an existing user of Soft Robotics’ software.

According to reports by Reuters, Pilgrim’s Pride, majorly owned by Brazilian meat giant JBS, is set to invest more than US$100 million in automation over the next year, to include doubling capacity of its Minnesota, US plant, aimed to produce chicken sold in tray packs. “We believe in automation, we believe in robotics, and we’re going to continue to move down that path,” Pilgrim’s Pride CEO Jayson Penn said. “This is something that pre-COVID we’ve been addressing and doing with our facilities, using more automation and more robotics.”

Meanwhile, Brazil’s fourth-largest pork processor, Frimesa, has revealed that its new plant under construction in the state of Parana, will include five robots, costing some 500,000 euros (US$586,000) each. They will perform tasks such as cutting open the pig’s chest, eviscerating it and slicing the animal in half.

Olymel LP, one of Canada’s biggest pork and poultry processors, had an automation plan before the pandemic forced it to temporarily close a Quebec plant for more than two weeks. It decided then to accelerate the plan, and intends to use robots to sort meat cuts, pick and pack shipments and stack boxes.

Lesters Foods, a hot dog processing factory has installed a robotic arm capable of moving packages into larger containers for shipping, allowing workers greater distance from each other. The small private company is investing several million dollars in a five-year plan to boost automation.

The African meat industry has also not been left behind, with one of Kenya’s leading meat processor Farmer’s Choice Ltd, partnering with Microsoft to digitize it operations and adopt more sustainable farming practices within its existing agriculture ecosystem to enhance productivity. This is also aimed to ensure food safety, product quality, and reduce waste. The move by the 40-year-old company which includes the adoption of cloud solutions offered by the giant tech firm, gives Farmer’s Choice unmatched visibility over the entire life cycle of meat production, allowing it to respond to supply and demand changes proactively.

Other industries catch up

By contrast, grain handling and processing has not experienced the same disruptions as the meat processing sector in the last 18 months. This can be attributed to the fact that most of the grain processing tasks have long been automated and less labour intensive.

However, the world’s leading plant equipment manufacturer Bühler Group, has continued to push forward the innovation yardstick in the milling industry, with launch of a new-revolutionary grinding solution for milling wheat, durum, rye, barley, corn, and spelt.

The new technology is an integrated and self-adjusting grinding system, featuring sensors in the feeding module and the roller pack, to enable greater control of the product flow and grinding process. With the sensors in place, the system is able to automatically adjust to the characteristics of the raw material thus controlling the quality of the product and maintain consistency.

In Japan, Satake, has launched a new optical sorter aimed at helping agro-processing companies efficiently sort grains, pulses, seeds and many other products. The new optical sorter features extra wide chutes and flexible configurations, to meet the needs of grain processing companies at different stages of growth. It also detects and distinguishes subtle colour differences by utilizing RGB full colour cameras, in addition to being equipped with shape recognition technology, which conventional colour sorters could not achieve. 

Shifting gears to the fruit and vegetable processing sector, the grading, sorting and assembling of the fresh produce has been done, predominantly, manually. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, players have been advocating for adoption of new technologies after the sector was met with the dilemma on how to handle the highly perishable commodities, meet the rising demand, while being understaffed.

During a virtual seminar titled, “Reinventing Food Safety and Compliance in Africa post COVID-19”, conducted by the Food Business Africa team, the Exports Manager of Africado Ltd, large-scale producers and exporters of avocado from Tanzania, echoed the sentiments saying, “What we need to focus on in the future is coming up with systems that reduce the requirement of human input for it to become a lot easier to manage going forward.“

In this regard, Netherlands based research institute, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research, has been undertaking the Autonomous Robots for Agrifood Processes project, for about three years now. Its focus is on developing intelligent robots, that can be programmed on how to perform multiple tasks, from picking and sorting different types of fruits and vegetables, to separating samples of the same type, based on size, shape and other characteristics.

The Wageningen robots are equipped with cameras that capture the motions of a human expert performing the tasks. Successful experiments have been carried out for different use cases, including picking and sorting mandarins of variable sizes, separating ripe from unripe bananas, sorting intact and damaged cucumbers, and separating out mixed fruits. The first demo application is expected to be ready by beginning of next year, indicates Fresh Plaza.

Looking at how the food manufacturing industry has promptly embraced the new technologies, it is evident that the players have realized the benefits of consistent 24/7 production, reduced cost, increased personnel safety, and overall improved efficiency courtesy of automation.

This feature appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Food Safety Africa. You can read the magazine HERE