Food and beverage processors have been hit by a number of challenges in recent years, and they only continue to grow.
Labor shortages — both skilled and unskilled — have been prevalent. Consumer demand and new markets such as plant-based protein and cannabis products are creating competitive concerns. Cost pressures continue to shape decision-making. And to top it all off, a global pandemic has created huge surges in demands for some plants while idling others.
All of those challenges are forcing processors to adapt and adjust, and that has created more demand for automation in food and beverage plants. But that creates its own challenges, as producing food isn’t the same as producing a product in another industry. A factory that makes oil filters has a uniform size and shape to work with, but a factory producing chicken breasts can’t say the same.
However, once food and beverage products are in their package, they can be treated the same as other products. Automated packaging and palletizing systems can be used the same way for boxes of food or cans of beverages as they can for oil filters, so processors are adopting automated systems for packaging, palletizing and warehousing products.
For those areas of food and beverage production that can’t be completely automated, processors are focusing on data collection and management. Production equipment may need an operator, but it can still report information on production counts, maintenance requirements and potential trouble spots on the production line.
Processors are using this data to make real-time operating decisions and adjust as necessary to meet production and safety goals. A connected production line with a data management system that can collect and report data in a format that is easy to use keeps processors constantly in tune with what’s happening on the floor, instead of having to wait for the end of a shift to look at totals. History of production data allows for identifying and analyzing trends from day to day, shift to shift, hour to hour and minute to minute.
Managing all of that data and putting it to work is the tricky part. It’s easy to be inundated with and overwhelmed by data if you don’t have the tools needed to properly handle it. If you have those tools in place, then suddenly inventory management, recalls and traceability and production become much easier than a collection of spreadsheets and paper forms. If you don’t, you won’t see the benefit because you’ll be trying to drink from a firehose.
Implementing and managing automated solutions have their own challenges, and they require a significant investment in time, money and other resources. But the potential payoff is enormous, because the ability to see what’s happening in real time and react to it offers processors a number of benefits that they simply couldn’t get from a production process that still relies on doing things the old way.