November 5, 2021
By: Matthew Inniger
This is an exciting time in the food manufacturing industry. The innovations and technology associated with Industry 4.0 are making it easier for small and medium-sized manufacturers to overcome obstacles in ways that at one point would not have been considered. While manufacturers have previously been slower to move toward incorporating advanced industry technologies due to the high level of regulation and biologically complex products with which they work, innovation is becoming more widely accepted as a key to industry sustainability. Two examples of such Industry 4.0 technologies are automation and augmented reality.
Typically, in food manufacturing, additional employees are needed during expected peaks – usually driven by seasonal demand. Yet, these manufacturers are now finding themselves unable to fill positions needed for seasonal workers, let alone regular shifts. And in the pandemic environment, the number of workers has continued to decline, leading food manufacturers to turn to automation as one way to solve this problem. There are two schools of thought as to how to best add automation to your food processing plant in order to streamline production and maximize workforce: task automation and data analysis.
Perhaps the most obvious way to streamline your facility is through task automation. By requiring fewer employees to be actively involved in line operation, you free your workforce to be able to focus on tasks with higher pay-offs. Additionally, with fewer employees required to keep the operations going, more shifts can be added to optimize productivity, requiring fewer employees to make the system work. This can help you ride the waves of labor shortages both now and in the future.
Automating your data analysis is another way to optimize your facility’s productivity. Using sensors to monitor your machines allows for the digitization of your data. As a result, software can more accurately predict when maintenance is required. Additionally, recording metrics surrounding your processes helps to further streamline these tasks and make better long-term strategic decisions.
Errors in food processing are the cause of more than 50% of the industry’s recalls. Helping to eliminate the chance of these errors as much as possible not only results in preventing sickness in customers, but also is a sure way to maintain plant profitability. One way some food manufacturers are mitigating errors is by employing augmented reality technologies.
Augmented reality has experienced an uptick in usage across all manufacturing industries as Industry 4.0 has emerged. While they are still evolving when it comes to food manufacturing, the value of these technologies cannot be underestimated given that ensuring worker health and safety is considered to contribute greatly to overall food safety, particularly in terms of personnel and sanitation regulations.
Food safety has been a concern for as long as food manufacturers have existed. The CDC estimates that 48 million people get sick from foodborne illnesses each year, resulting in 3,000 deaths, and this number is continuing to grow. Not all of these deaths are caused by food manufacturing mishaps, but finding ways to reduce food contamination can contribute to the continued profitability of the food manufacturing industry while improving food safety. Augmented reality has provided a new, more trackable way to mitigate these concerns using headsets. For employees on the preparation or inspection line, an augmented reality headset can provide a step-by-step list of ingredients or tasks that can be superimposed for the employee to follow, helping to reduce the risk of missing important steps.
Some of the processes in food manufacturing involve the use of complex machinery. Using the same headset technology as those on the inspection line, an employee can have access to important processing procedures while avoiding potential injury. In addition, with the advancement and increased adoption of predictive maintenance, augmented reality can be used to help with machine inspections or, in some cases, even maintenance tasks.
Even with all the technological progress in automation and augmented reality, it is important to remember that there are key differences between food manufacturing and other types of manufacturing, so an Industry 4.0 technology rollout must be carefully considered. You can reach out to WMEP Manufacturing Solutions or another of the 51 MEP Centers, located in all 50 states and Puerto Rico, that are part of the MEP National NetworkTM for more Industry 4.0 insights and informational resources.