By Erica Burns on July 9, 2019
The demand for increasing automation in food processing and handling continues to grow – and for good reason. Labor shortages. The ceaseless pressure to increase productivity. Expectations for consistency and high quality. Regulatory calls for more transparency and accountability in the food supply chain.
The list is long, but one benefit may be more significant than all others: food safety. The good news is that the right end-of-arm tools (EOATs) used in automating food handling and processing make it possible to create clean and contamination-free production areas that lower the risk of costly food recalls.
Not all EOATs are created equally. Automation teams in food processing and handling will do their homework in advance of any decision to ensure that the EOATs they choose do not put their operation at risk from biologic contamination, cross-contamination, or in fact, any kind of contamination.
Finding workers for production jobs is hard. Keeping them is harder. That’s why food processing and handling operations are looking to robots, equipped with EOATs, to handle the work. Thanks to advances in technology, EOATs are now effective and accessible, giving automation teams new ways to staff their operations, increase productivity, and lower the risk of pathogen introduction and contamination.
Today, food production and processing is a global industry, and governments around the world are working hard to ensure the integrity and security of the food supply chain. In the US and the European Union, regulations calling for increased transparency and accountability are on the rise. Understanding these regulations is essential when evaluating EOATs as these devices have the most direct contact with the product; the right EOAT solution will support the goal of controlling contamination – the single, best prescription for avoiding food recalls.
Intangible and tangible ways, the impact of food recalls on a company’s business is high. In 2017, a survey conducted by the Grocery Manufacturers of America found that a single food recall can cost a company, on average, $10 million indirect costs. Far harder to measure, but potentially more devastating, can be the cost to the brand. A survey by Harris Interactive found that 21 percent of consumers affected by a recall would not buy any product from the same manufacturer. Eliminating the risks of having to bear these immediate and long-term costs are in large part driving the focus on automation.
Historically, food packaging and handling have been the most difficult industry to automate, primarily due to the variability of the products involved in the operation. Texture, size, density, and the inherent non-conformity of shapes have kept processing and handling out of reach – until now. The EOATs required for tasks have come a long way to addressing these challenges, and today, there are several options on the market. The most commonly used EOATs in food processing are:
● Stainless steel “fingers” or “needles”
● Vacuum-based systems
● Adaptive Grasping Systems
Understanding how these solutions work with processes, the products they are handling and the cleanliness and safety requirements for those products is essential to choosing the solution that will be the most effective.
When evaluating an EOAT solution for food processing and handling these questions will help choose a solution that delivers both the productivity and safety results needed.
● Can the solution meet the required rate of the application?
● Can it accommodate a range of product variations?
● Does the solution conform to the appropriate regulations? How can the supplier prove it to me?
● Does the solution provider adhere to Good Manufacturing Practices in the production of its products?
● Is there a potential risk for ingress or harborage of bacteria?
● How will the system be cleaned?
The decision to automate makes a lot of sense for many reasons. Cost, applicability, and ease-of-use are typical factors to consider when choosing a robotic solution, but for food processing and handling organizations, any solution must ensure the safety, quality, and integrity of the product that reaches the consumer.
Automation teams that invest in understanding how the solution they are evaluating can help ensure food safety, as well as meeting the need for productivity and quality can quickly – and confidently – select an EOAT solution that delivers.
For more information on automation in the food processing and handling industries, including the costs associated with food safety issues, regulations, and the most common solutions, download our latest market brief “ Appetite for Automation in Food Processing and Handling: What You Need to Know”.