The food industry heavily relies on human labour, which can lead to supply chain disruptions and food safety concerns. To address these challenges, industrial automation has become indispensable for both food production and distribution. Automation and robotics, including AI, drones, and 3D printing, have significantly transformed food production and packaging. They extend product shelf life, enhance food safety, and lower production costs.

AI, in particular, optimizes food production and delivery by analysing data to match output with consumer demand. Robotics, on the other hand, is making headway in agriculture and food manufacturing, streamlining processes such as field exploration, sorting, and packaging. This integration not only reduces manual labour but also elevates productivity, quality, and customer satisfaction in the food industry, ushering in a new era of efficiency and innovation.

To understand this in a better way we bring the Big Story with opinions from Mr. BSL Prasad, GM Projects, Srinivasa Farms Pvt. Ltd.; Mr Harsh Khubchandani, Founder, Greenwolf Tech Labs; Mr. Rahul Sharma, Branding and Marketing Consultant, ZEO Route Planner; and Food Technologist, Dr. Chaya H. C.

Q1. How has automation transformed the efficiency and productivity of food manufacturing and processing? Can you provide specific examples of processes or tasks that have seen significant improvements?

Mr. BSL Prasad- Automation in food manufacturing and processing involves using machinery, sensors, and control systems to perform tasks previously done manually.  It is a way to improve productivity and efficiency while reducing labour costs and human errors.  Automation improves quality control, gain unprecedented levels of end-to-end traceability, boosts output rates and reduces food wastage with better supply and demand management.

Automation also helps in better sales and forecasting reports, monitors changes in consumer behaviours, monitors any emerging trends/preference and provides in-depth knowledge on market trends which can be used during new product development processes.

Tools like a) ERP solutions & workflow management b) Robotics – Sorting, grading, processing, packaging & cooking c) Automatic equipment – Evisceration, de-boning, mixing, cutting & slicing, cooking & baking, d) automated packaging & labeling helps us to achieve the above.

Grading equipment after screw-chilling in poultry processing helps us to segregate the birds as per the requirement of the customers without any manual intervention.  Similarly, automatic evisceration equipment allows us to remove offal and reduce manpower intervention and improve the quality of the carcass.  Automatic de-boning equipment allows us to serve customers with consistent supply of processed product while avoiding human errors.  Graders and automatic pasteurizers in processing of liquid egg products help us produce huge quantities of egg products through PLC operations using sensors and control equipment.

Mr. Harsh Khubchandani- Automation has transformed the efficiency and productivity of food manufacturing and processing by enabling faster, more accurate, and more consistent production processes. For example, sorting and grading raw materials such as fruits, vegetables, and grains based on their size, color, shape, etc., using sensors, cameras, or lasers can reduce waste, increase yield, and improve quality. Mixing and blending ingredients such as powders, liquids, or solids in precise ratios and sequences using machines such as blenders, mixers, or agitators can ensure consistency, reduce variability, and improve quality. Packaging and labeling finished products such as snacks, beverages, or frozen foods in various formats such as bags, bottles, or boxes using machines such as fillers, sealers, or printers can increase speed, reduce errors, and improve safety.

Dr Chaya H. C.- In food processing, automation has substantially increased precision in ingredient mixing, reduction in waste and increased product consistency. This is especially noticeable for example in baking. Automated systems make raw material handling more efficient, providing precise and timely delivery in to production lines. This reduces the chances of contamination along with also lowering manpower and enhancing safety. Automation has considerably expedited food production, enabling greater output in a shorter period. For example, mechanized potato processing for French fries allows for mass manufacturing while preserving product consistency. High-speed conveyor systems, robotic pick-and-place arms, and packing gear have reduced operation time, resulting in higher output at lesser costs. Automated machines may execute a variety of processing activities, increasing efficiency and uniformity while decreasing the possibility of human error.

Food safety: Automated system can maintain optimum temperature, humidity, pressure and other required parameters and also sanitation levels within the processing plants.  automation has considerably improved food safety in the food business, preventing contamination with harmful microorganisms. For instance, in dairy processing, automated pasteurization and sterilizing processes ensure rigorous safety standards. Automation minimizes the danger of food contamination by reducing human intervention, improving product quality, Sensors can monitor by for detecting irregularities with a quick response.

Inventory management systems have revolutionized food manufacturing by utilizing instantaneous data analytics and order maintain proper inventory levels, with minimum wastage ensuring consistency in the supply chain. This technology assists food businesses monitoring with predicting consumer demand reducing overstock or shortage.  In addition, automation extends throughout the supply chain and reduce costs. As a result, food safety has increased and waste has been reduced with automation.

There is a drastic improvement in packaging system with automation, it is more efficient and cost-effective. It can work with a wide range of materials and types, making it suitable for fast-paced food processing enhancing efficiency and consistency.  Automated labeling and barcoding systems ensure product traceability and regulatory compliances. Automated packaging system can lower labor costs while improving food safety.

Automation has considerably improved efficiency, productivity, and safety in the food manufacturing and processing business. It has resulted in more precise ingredient mixing, better quality control, quicker packaging, better food safety, effective inventory management, faster manufacturing, and with lesser costs.  More innovations and improvements can be expected with evolving technology, assuring constant quality and safety in food products. Automation has also lowered labor expenses while improving food safety and product quality with sanitation, employee training, and regulatory compliance.

Mr. Rahul Sharma- Industrial automation in manufacturing has been changing the manufacturing industry in several ways. It is making the manufacturing process faster, that too in a more productive and more accurate way. Also, it is making it probable for producing goods of higher standard at a cheaper cost. Example: Vonage, a global leader in cloud communications, sought to unify and automate how its workforce and systems work together to help accelerate growth. Vonage used automation technologies to consolidate customer data, making it easier and faster for sales teams to understand the needs of customers and prospects.

Q2. What are the key challenges and considerations when implementing automation in food manufacturing, particularly in terms of food safety and quality control? How do you address these challenges?

Mr. BSL Prasad- Automation solutions are the foundation for a lasting competitive advantage, and provide the flexibility to overcome today’s challenges and prepare businesses for the future.  Retention of trained manpower and their attrition becomes a major challenge.  Valuable time is spent in training technical manpower to ensure seamless operation which requires preventive maintenance and proper on-time technical support to keep operations ongoing.  We need to have back-up manpower and hierarchical investment in second lines to ensure the operations do not get effected.  The equipment and data must be managed efficiently to ensure breakdown less operation.

One of the most maddening situations in any food plant is when a packaging machine goes down, forcing production to either stop or be accumulated at a point upstream with enough capacity to buy the time needed to get the packaging machine back up.  Spares are critical in maintenance of automatic equipment and having enough spares will be of greater importance.

Having enough back-up of manpower, data, spares, and stand-by equipment will ensure smooth flow of operation and will help the team to take on any untoward mishaps.

Mr. Harsh Khubchandani- The key challenges and considerations when implementing automation in food manufacturing are related to food safety and quality control. To address these challenges, companies must use food-grade materials and lubricants that are safe for human consumption. They must also use cleaning protocols that are effective against different types of contaminants. Quality control systems that monitor the production process in real-time and detect any deviations from the standards must be used.

Dr Chaya H.C.- Automation has considerably increased the efficiency, productivity, and precision in food manufacturing. It is a challenge to ensure food safety and maintain quality standards. To maintain integrity of the food supply, it is essential to identify and address the challenges. Automated systems should be designed carefully to minimize the contamination. This may require the use of specific designs to auto-clean the surfaces and sensors to detect the contamination. Automated sensors and cameras can monitor and manage product quality. The equipments used in food processing are required to be of food grade and easy-to-clean.

Transitioning to automation requires employees to acquire competencies. A culture of continuous learning and adaptation to embrace the benefits of automation should be created by training the employees continuously about food safety and standard regulatory compliances.

Efficiency of food production increases exponentially with reduced labor costs, in lesser time, keeping quality and consistency of the product by utilizing automation.

Mr. Rahul Sharma- Today, many employees and leaders view automation as a complementary tool. More than 90% of workers recently surveyed by Salesforce said automation solutions increased their productivity, and 85% said these tools boosted collaboration across their teams. Nearly 90% also said they trusted automation solutions to get more done without errors and help them make decisions faster

Q.3. Automation often requires a substantial initial investment. Could you explain how companies in the food industry justify and measure the return on investment (ROI) when integrating automation into their operations?

Mr. B.S.L Prasad- Part of the long-term benefits of implementing automated processes is the flexibility they create for future expansion. We can expect meticulously crafted and reliable equipment to meet our manufacturing needs and equipment built to increase efficiency and overall production. At the end of the day, automation in food manufacturing is here to stay. Adapting to current manufacturing standards, prioritizing safety, and optimizing employee skills will help your business thrive both now, and in the future.

To obtain the ROI figure, subtract the estimated costs from the estimated benefits, divide the resulting amount by the expenses, and multiply it by 100. The outcome will be a percentage figure showing an expected return on adopting automation.  The ROI calculation is based on the cost of hourly time, run time, debug time, alert assistance time, documentation time, training time, and knowledge capture.   ROI = Net income / Cost of investment x 100.

By automating production areas such as packing and cutting, this helps you reduce the risk of injury to your workforce whilst accelerating output. Increased safety for your workforce also helps to reduce maintenance costs in the long run.  Companies able to downsize their production footprint will experience lower overhead costs. One benefit of automation is that it can provide you detailed data to identify bottlenecks and tweak and adjust systems. This kind of insight can contribute to better efficiency across all areas of production.

Mr. Harsh Khubchandani- Companies in the food industry justify and measure the return on investment (ROI) when integrating automation into their operations by considering various factors such as cost savings (reducing labor costs), productivity gains (increasing output), quality improvements (improving consistency), innovation opportunities (enabling new products). Companies can measure the ROI of automation by using various metrics such as payback period (the time it takes to recover the initial investment), net present value (the present value of future cash flows), internal rate of return (the rate at which the investment generates returns).

Dr Chaya H.C.- Automation in food manufacturing requires a significant investment by taking both tangible and intangible benefits into account. This involves the factors such as higher efficiency and productivity, quality and consistency, reduced waste and raw material usage, labor cost savings, energy efficiency and operational costs, scalability and increased production, improved food safety and compliance, increased traceability and data analysis, brand reputation. In order to justify the initial investment in automation, companies have to develop a complete business case that specifies the expected benefits and expenses of automation and an in-depth evaluation of their present operations and possible improvements as well. Food companies analyse the metrics of production output, quality, labor cost, food safety once the automation is implemented.

Companies can use a variety of strategies to evaluate the return on investment (ROI), such as increased efficiency and productivity, labor cost savings, reduced waste, consistency and quality improvements, energy and resource efficiency, increased production flexibility, maintenance costs, regulatory compliance and risk mitigation, scalability, and competitive advantage. Food companies may also consider other factors, like environmental impact, The food industry should carefully evaluate the potential return on investment (ROI) of automation. This helps in taking informed decisions about investing in automation.

Mr. Rahul Sharma- Succeeding with automation starts with what I call “business intimacy.” While maintaining food quality and safety standards, manufacturers must find ways to cut costs without compromising on the quality of the food they produce. Reducing the cost of food manufacturing is essential because it can make food more affordable for consumers, increase profits for manufacturers, and improve the industry’s competitiveness. With the increasing demand for food, manufacturers are under pressure to produce more while keeping costs low, making cost-reduction strategies even more critical. To ensure optimal ESG performance and business returns across your supply chains, you must engage in collaborative initiatives, as well as establish multi-stakeholder governance.

Q.4. With the increasing demand for personalized and specialty food products, how does automation accommodate customization and flexibility in food production processes? Are there any notable trends or technologies that support this?

Mr. BSL Prasad- Customers are developing a greater awareness of nutrition, so the desire for tailor-fit nutritional solutions is growing as well.

In addition to diets based on nutrigenomics (i.e, the relationship between nutrients, diet, and genes), there are also dietary preferences to consider, such as sugar- and gluten-free eating plans, vegan diets, and clean-label food items.

The integration of robotics and 3D printing enables nutrition customization at scale. Additionally, consumers can choose eating patterns that best match their genetic profiles thanks to at-home blood and urine testing kits.

In order to optimize their diet, people can also track their diet and health problems using a variety of devices. As a result, customer convenience and sales increase as consumers have more control over their dietary preferences.

Smart packaging is another food industry innovation that uses nanotechnology to create packages that can detect physical or chemical microbial changes in food. This helps determine food quality, detects whether food is close to spoiling, and prolongs shelf life, among other applications.

Mr. Harsh Khubchandani- Automation accommodates customization and flexibility in food production processes by enabling modular designs that are easily reconfigured or adapted to different product lines or variations without major changes to the hardware or software. Programmable controls that have programmable controls or logic can be easily customized or adjusted to different recipes or formulations without major changes to the hardware or software. Data analytics capabilities can collect and analyze data on customer preferences or market trends to inform product development or customization.

Dr Chaya H. C. – Automation is important in food production as it allows personalization and flexibility. There is a significant shift in consumer preferences towards personalized and specialty food products, leading to the development of automation strategies that accommodate customization and flexibility in food production processes. Modular equipments, robotics, sensors and monitoring systems, and artificial intelligence (AI) can assist companies in producing customised food products at unpredicted scales.

Automation systems can be designed to manufacture multiple products and may be equipped with sensors and monitoring systems to track product quality and make necessary adjustments according to the manufacturing process. Food companies can adjust their manufacturing processes based on consumer demand. Mass customisation is also possible without sacrificing efficiency and productivity.  Notable trends and technologies in this aspect include modular production lines, robotic arms, advanced sensors and vision systems, 3D printing and additive manufacturing, blockchain technology, collaborative robots, smart packaging and labelling and AI and machine learning algorithms etc. By understanding consumer demand, determining the cost, and implementing complex automation projects, food companies can revolutionize the way food is produced.

Mr. Rahul Sharma- What you must keep in mind is that when you are picking the right initiatives, you should always look for tangible results from the aforementioned collaborative actions. Considering the spread and complexity of global supply chains, all efforts of sustainability calls for efficient management tools that will help you track environmental metrics. This will keep your whole supply chain accountable to ESG obligations. In fact, for bringing transparency to your entire supply chain, digital management tools like Deskera, SAP ECC, will be your perfect solution. From Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Environmental Control Systems, you should actively work towards incorporating these digital tools into your sustainable supply chain management programs.

Q.5 Automation can lead to changes in the workforce composition and skill requirements. How can employees be managed during the transition phase as automation is introduced into the food manufacturing and processing industry? What training and upskilling programs are in place to adapt to these changes?

Mr. BSL Prasad- Recent advancements in automation technology have led to the development of intelligent systems that can learn and adapt to different situations, improving production processes’ effectiveness and efficiency.

Integrating the Internet of Things (IoT) technology into food manufacturing processes has enabled real-time monitoring and data collection, leading to better decision-making and improved production processes.

Automation can lead to job loss, as the technology can replace some manual labour jobs. This can have significant social and economic consequences, especially in regions where manufacturing jobs are scarce.  Automated systems require specialized training and skill sets. Manufacturers must invest in employee training to ensure they can operate and maintain the automated machinery.

The state of skilled labour has been below equilibrium for some time. As the previous generation of skilled laborers retires, the next wave of labourers entering the workforce is not nearly of the same scale. Therefore, food manufacturers are turning to several solutions to help solve this challenge, but there is no easy result. It is a combination of design, employment and operating decisions that hopefully add up to meeting staffing needs. Some successful manufacturing companies are combatting the skilled labour shortage by investing in automation and software to complement their existing workforce, meet production requirements, and attract new talent.

A good deal of time, energy, and money has been dedicated to figuring out what companies can do to attract and retain the workforce they need to meet the demands of the market. And the answer is that there is no easy way. There is no magical method that will make the problem go away. But there are several ways companies can both close their existing talent gaps and put themselves into a better position for the future. With the demand so high for food, automatization has become a necessity. This is where the future of automation in the food industry starts to form.

Automatization will not remove the human factor from the food industry. Rather, it is calling for a new set of skills, such as greater efficiency in machinery. Skill level is an important consideration, too, as there are now automation technologies that make it possible for food manufacturers to hire staff with lower levels of skills. This is another way that automation is helping food processors minimise the impact of labour shortages. Yes, automatization may replace some jobs. But in the end, automatization paves the way for innovation, creating opportunities for more people to find better work, and allows businesses to remain competitive and productive.

Mr. Harsh Khubchandani- Employees can be managed during the transition phase as automation is introduced into the food manufacturing and processing industry by providing training programs that help employees acquire new skills or knowledge related to automation technologies such as programming languages, data analytics, or robotics. Upskilling opportunities that help employees advance their careers within the company by learning new skills, taking on new roles, or pursuing higher education should be offered. Companies should ensure transparency and communication with employees about the reasons for introducing automation, the benefits, and the potential impact on their jobs, as well as any plans for retraining, redeployment, or severance.

Dr Chaya H.C.- Managing transition to automation in food manufacturing and processing industries is at most important to smooth transition and successful implementation of automation. This leads to changes in workforce composition and skill requirements. This can be effectively achieved by right strategies and training programs where employees can adapt.

Employees should be well aware of the significance of automation, its expected benefits, and the potential impact on their roles. It’s important to address any concerns and consider employees in the decision-making process when feasible. This involves effective communication skills.

It is necessary to follow a timely scheduled training program to reskilling and upskilling to equip the employees with the necessary skills to operate and maintain automated systems. Continuous learning and fostering a culture of innovation are also essential here. Job redesign, employee feedback, retention incentives, safety training, and employee support programs are helpful in supporting employees during the transition. These strategies ensure a smooth and successful implementation for both employees and the industry.

Mr. Rahul Sharma- In an increasingly tech-driven world with new complexities from a hybrid workforce, automation will be an inevitable competitive advantage. Traditional processes can no longer meet the standards of consumer or employee expectations. Automation is not a threat. If allowed, new technologies can swiftly replace human laborers within multiple industries. According to a McKinsey study, at least one-third of tasks could theoretically be automated in about 60 percent of all occupations. Since machines have been programmed to manage tedious responsibilities, more businesses plan to adopt automation, disrupting the corporate world. Training is critical for business growth. Automated learning technology, such as digital LMS platforms, speeds up the onboarding process for new hires to learn their roles or for existing employees to upskill. These platforms deliver training materials to employees anywhere, at any time, to complete at their convenience. There is a clear and absolute need for automation and humans today, tomorrow, and the foreseeable future

Author

I'm a Post Graduate in Food, Nutrition and Clinical Dietetics. Currently I'm thriving in my role as a Senior Sub-Editor at Food Infotech Magazine. My passion-driven research and engaging interviews with industry leaders captivate readers, bridging the realms of taste, health, and innovation in gastronomy while sparking curiosity about the future of food.

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