Despite cultural resistance, automation is on the rise

by Sean Riley, PMMI
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Decreasing automation costs can lead to better R.O.I. for companies of all sizes.

As costs decline for implementing automation, even small to medium-sized consumer packaged goods companies are beginning to see value in taking steps toward gradual automation, according to the 2017 Evolution of Automation industry research report, produced by PMMI, The Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. 

While cost is always the bottom-line driver, the report identifies six reasons why automation is increasing.

1. With automation costs decreasing, companies of all sizes will have an easier time achieving an acceptable R.O.I. 

2. Open platform standards are evolving.

3. The convergence of I.T. and O.T. — the hardware and software dedicated to detecting or causing changes in physical processes through direct monitoring and/or control of physical devices — is still emerging. 

4. Cybersecurity, in a layered systems approach, will help alleviate security issues.

5. Upgrading disparate and legacy systems can be expensive. 

6. Utilizing data for operational improvements will take years and will require educating the industry on how to gather it, use it, store it and apply it. 

Compared to other industries, food is typically slower to adopt automation due to lower margins and a long-standing, traditional method of manufacturing. Which begs the question, if traditional methods still work, why change them? 

Sanitation and traceability laws have caused a reluctance to install robots. However, faster line speeds are making automation necessary to continue to increase production to meet global demand. With the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approving wash down for robots and end-of-arm-tooling, robot use in direct food contact is increasingly possible. Implementing automation into the baking and snack processing and packaging sector can cut waste, assure accurate fill-rates, improve operating costs, maximize uptime and consistently measure production. Robotics also offset issues with finding skilled workers. Labor shortages are now costing baking and snack processors and packers significant capital due to less-than-willing domestic labor and a shrinking labor pool of foreign workers. Automated, smart machines are more compact, “smarter” (increased storage capacity, more data collection, easier integration and remote use), and automated lines incorporate vision, enabling automated quality control.

Manufacturers typically expect two- to three-year payback on equipment purchases, with a longer R.O.I. occurring with the high cost of automated equipment. As the cost of labor continues to rise and the cost of automation solutions continues to fall, many manufacturers have discovered that automation solutions, which were previously too expensive, now yield an acceptable R.O.I. Capital budgets for baking and snack companies are also expected to rise, allowing more money for automated innovations.

Automation solutions will be on display at the third edition of Pack Expo East, being held April 16–18 in Pittsburgh. This small-scale show is an ideal opportunity for OEMs and C.P.G. companies to connect and share ideas and solutions on a more personal level. 
 
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