Automation for food processors starts with food safety and traceability
By Steven BurtonAutomation Editor pick food safety Icicle Technologies
Amid supply chain and labour disruptions, building resilience in the food industry is critically important, and governments know this. Funding to adopt automation technology, traceability systems, and more is becoming a bigger priority, most recently with the March announcement of the $292.5 million Supply Management Processing Investment Fund for dairy and poultry processors from the federal government that “supports projects that increase automation and/or improve productivity in processing facilities.” Such programs pose an opportunity to food processors looking to optimize processes and reduce costs – but the benefits extend far beyond, and may not be as costly up front as you might imagine.
While a $5 million cost-sharing grant could be transformative for many businesses, the grand scale of robotic process automation means that the impact in terms of equipment will likely be modest. Robotics equipment easily runs up costs in the six figures and higher and remains out of reach for most food processors, at least for now. Subscription or rent-to-own programs and similar solutions can mitigate the expense, but what about companies that can’t wait for the long-term benefits of such a significant investment?
In reality, the benefits of automation don’t require an all-or-nothing approach. The beginning of automation lies in the process itself, and the hardware is incorporated as you go. At the core is the software that builds out the process structure and connects all the dots. For food processors specifically, this software needs a regulatory framework and a supply chain framework to deliver scalable, growth-oriented results for your business.
Ace regulatory requirements with automation technology
In order to achieve regulatory compliance and quality control, food businesses must collect and manage large amounts of data points. What does automation mean for food safety and quality? Say you want to automate the collection of temperature in your facility. Previously someone may have gone to check the temperature of a freezer periodically and written it down on paper, or they might have inputted into a digital system. Automated, this process is captured by sensors that feed the data directly into the digital system.
The next level of automation comes when something goes out of range: using the automatically inputted data, an automated food safety management system would also trigger alerts for the relevant departments and individuals so that you can respond to nonconformities and deviations in real time. In the event of an issue during production or a recall related to the cold chain (for example, spoilage), you can refer to your temperature log to determine liability.
Of course, real-time data isn’t only useful when you have a problem. With all your temperature data logged in the system, you can use that information to optimize your processes and facilities. Trend temperature logs for different freezers to optimize maintenance work, energy use, and other equipment issues. Investigate quality assurance issues and customer complaints easily and with accurate, specific data. All of that data should be available in a secure, cloud-based software that can be accessed from a mobile device or laptop.
Temperature is just one data set that you need to collect for regulatory compliance. For food safety to be automated in total, you need all the data from all the critical control points throughout a facility. In addition to all of the controls and process optimization, with automated food safety, you end up with a complete audit log, ready for an inspection or audit at any time with minimal prep. The same goes for quality assurance and third-party certifications: with all of your data in a centralized, automation software, you can easily adapt your mandated food safety program to comply with other programs, like SQF, organic, allergen-free, and more that can open new markets.
Expand your business advantages with traceability automation
The second area where automation can truly revolutionize a food business is in traceability. Especially in an increasingly complex global supply chain, it is more important than ever to be able to track ingredients, materials, and products one step forward and one step back. This requirement now comes from government regulators and retailers alike.
Automating traceability begins again with the data input. You can integrate GS1 barcodes, which contain all the necessary information including lot codes, to seamlessly manage the flow of data into your automated system. With all of your data standardized through the internationally recognized GS1 system, you can use scanners and mobile devices to locate and manage inventory even across multiple locations or facilities. In a centralized system, this means you can also conduct mass balance calculations and mock recalls in minutes, at any time.
It also means that you can track the flow of inventory throughout your entire facility from receiving to shipping, making your traceability system do double duty as a warehouse management solution. That lot code that was scanned at receiving can then be sent anywhere else in the facility and then throughout the rest of the supply chain to the final consumer. Although automation makes it less likely, in the event of a recall, an automated traceability system can then identify the lots that need to be recalled with pinpoint precision so you can respond quickly and limit the scope of the recall.
The information attached to that lot code includes quality and safety information like best-before dates; an automated and enhanced traceability system (integrated with other systems) can manage the flow of inventory to maximize shelf life of final products and reduce waste (expiration management) and monitor inventory levels to ensure you can meet production targets (production management). All of these benefits can be attained without the need for expensive equipment.
Automation opportunities for food processors
Automation technology doesn’t just mean robots. At the core is your data and the software system that manages it, and automation equipment from IoT technology to robotics is a layer in this paradigm shift.
The business sense of adopting automation technology is immediately apparent when you consider the impact on costing. Most food businesses use standard costing to assess and predict the cost of their products and operations. With real-time data based in automated traceability and food safety programs, automation technology can boost your accounting capabilities from standard costing to dynamic costing (or real costing). Volatile supply chains and costs are likely to become the norm and you need to make data-driven decisions to weather storms, not rely on approximations that could be crucially off base.
Governments are recognizing how essential automation technology is for food businesses to gain and maintain a competitive edge in the global marketplace. The Supply Management Processing Investment Fund is just one example of a government program to support companies through this transition. The Canada Digital Adoption Program, the Boost Your Business Technology Grant, and the Canadian Food Innovation Network’s Innovation Booster have funding available for the adoption of automation technologies. There are many more programs on the provincial and territorial levels. While these funds might not cover the cost of entry to a robotics revolution, they can pave the way to scalable growth with an immediate return on investment.
Steven Burton is CEO & founder, Icicle Technologies, Inc. Burton is an innovative software architect and the creator Icicle, an award-winning ERP for food manufacturers.
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