Greater automation in the food industry can lead to higher quality and safer products, all while reducing costs.
By and large, Americans take food safety for granted. When most of us purchase a product at the grocery store, we expect that it will be safe to eat. Large-scale food-borne outbreaks are rare, relative to the amount of food produced and consumed in the country, and when they do occur, recalls are generally swift. For companies who experience a food safety failure, however, the fallout can both damage their brand and lead to significant financial costs.
Food safety risks come in many forms, including natural spoilage, the introduction of harmful toxins or bacteria, and contamination by undeclared allergens. Automation improves food safety by preventing contaminants from entering the production stream, detecting them when they occur, and assisting recalls when required. Here’s how.
1. Greater visibility into ingredient supply chain and inventory.
Food safety begins before your factory goes into production. If you receive contaminated product from a supplier, or if product goes bad while it’s on your shelf, then your entire production line could be clean as a whistle and still turning out spoiled goods. Automated inventory processes can help you keep track of your intake, and trace where that product has been used if the supplier issues a recall.
2. Improved hygiene through use of robots.
Like it or not, human workers introduce a source of contamination. Workers come to work sick—sometimes without even knowing it. They forget to wash their hands, they sneeze at the wrong moment, they absent-mindedly rub their eyes or run their fingers through their hair. And despite requirements to wear gloves, hairnets, and face masks, you can’t fully sterilize a human being.
Robots, on the other hand, can be sanitized. Moreover, they don’t introduce contaminants in the first place. With the new capabilities of modern robots, it’s possible to entirely replace human workers in many production lines.
3. Automated cleaning procedures.
In any food production environment, equipment needs to be sterilized at routine intervals. Even when the chances of contamination are low, with large-scale production, the spread of an outbreak is too great a risk. Automated sterilization processes include using high-powered hoses to spray down surfaces with hot water or wiping down machines with a sanitizing solution.
4. Accurate testing for pathogen detection.
Factories can follow all the guidelines, and still end up with dangerous pathogens in their products. By introducing a testing process into the production line, food manufacturers are taking a proactive step toward detecting food-borne illness early, before it reaches consumer markets.
5. More consistent production for quality control.
While many automated processes improve food safety by eliminating a risk or introducing a safety procedure, there’s something to be said for automation itself as a step toward higher quality food goods. Production consistency reduces the kinds of variables that could go wrong in a food manufacturing environment, from a worker moving a bit too slowly while handling a temperature-controlled ingredient, to someone moving from one station to another and inadvertently introducing allergen cross-contamination. By reducing opportunities for human error, automation improves quality through consistency.
6. Automated packing for product freshness and shelf stability.
There are all kinds of ways to package food, from bottles to cans, individual portions to boxes of bulk ingredients, shrink-wrapped and vacuum sealed. Automation can handle each step, from portioning to sealing, with greater speed and precision than human workers. Speed matters, too. The faster goods are packaged, the better they retain their quality.
7. Higher traceability for targeted recalls.
When the worst happens and a food-borne pathogen does make it into a product, food manufacturers need to know where that food went in order to issue a recall—and the more specific a recall can be, the better. This isn’t just to limit the cost of a recall, although costs can grow exponentially the broader the recall is. It also helps eliminate waste and reduce the impact to consumers, especially of essential products that are in high demand.
Producers can use data-gathering tools to track how products moved through a factory. If one of those products is then linked to a food-borne illness, the manufacturer can pull up that product’s data to identify what other products might similarly be contaminated.
8. Increased worker safety.
Food production can be a dangerous environment. Food workers are often handling sharp blades or working with hot or caustic ingredients, like oil, boiling syrup, and lye solutions. Automation can put greater distance between a worker and a point of danger and can also introduce safeguards to protect workers from accidents.
9. Reduced time to shelf.
Finally, by making processes faster and more efficient, automation reduces the time it takes for a product to reach grocery store shelves. When working with highly perishable items, this not only keeps waste and spoilage to a minimum, it also results in higher-quality goods.
Food automation doesn’t just improve safety—it lowers the bottom line.
As we said, fixing a food safety outbreak—even one that is caught early and never makes it to the general public—results in an expensive amount of waste. Automation that reduces lost product is therefore an obvious cost saver. However, automation also lowers overhead in other ways, all while improving product quality and boosting output. In other words, automation rapidly recoups in time and labor costs the initial investment food manufacturers make in implementation costs.
At Eagle, we specialize in automation solutions using the latest technologies, including advanced robotics for production, IIoT-enabled devices for monitoring, artificial vision technologies for inspection, and big data for tracing. If you are interested in how these technologies could be used to improve food safety at your production facility, contact us today, and one of our representatives can discuss our capabilities with you.
Eagle Technologies, headquarters in Bridgman, MI