Technology Impacting the Food Manufacturing Industry
The Covid-19 Pandemic doesn’t just affect the restaurants we eat in or the grocery stores where we buy our food. It also has significant ramifications for the food manufacturing industry as well.
In April and May of last year, over 17,300 cases of Covid-19 infection among factory workers reduced U.S. beef and chicken production by more than one-third in late April. This has led to a spur in technological investment from these companies to help automate these processes for the safety of both food and workers.
Conversations about human employment and the economy aside, these technologies are fascinating, combining artificial intelligence, machine vision, and robotics to form a fully automatic food processing chain.
They can offer an immense number of benefits such as maximizing output, allowing for more precise temperature monitoring, and offering better insight into the recall causes. Here we’ll take a look at some of these disruptive new technologies and see how technical innovation is paving the way for cleaner food production.
What Is Track And Trace?
As reported by Food Manufacturing, in Q1 of 2020, the FDA issued 141 food recalls affecting 8.8 million units of food. Additionally, they report that in just the first half of 2020, USDA-required recalls affected about 500 fully-grown cattle’s worth of beef or 700,000 pounds. These recalls are unfortunate but important in keeping people healthy and safe and are enabled by modern safety technology.
Track and trace is the process of marking food items with unique identifying barcodes that are scanned by high-quality factory lenses, so they can be tracked as they make their way through the food supply chain. If an item is seen to be contaminated, this can then be flagged within the automated factory system. These systems can then apply the same flag to foods from the same source, preventing potentially harmful items from reaching consumers and kitchens.
This process starts at the food’s unique source with the use of a Global Trade Item Number which offers insight into every step of that respective product’s supply chain. These are paired with Global Location Numbers to track where that item of food is and when.
With this information, if a recall is issued, experts can trace the food’s journey in reverse to help discover the source of the issue, whether it be improper storage, unsanitary machinery, or something else entirely.
This level of insight is previously unheard of, as traditionally, most of this information becomes scattered between facilities and manufacturers. However, it is now instantly available to food officials, factory processors, and transit drivers so that they can all evaluate where a flaw may have occurred. This also provides higher-level executives with the same information instantly, instead of taking several days as it may have in the past.
What Are AGVs?
More and more, food production warehouses are making use of Automatic Guided Vehicles (AGVs) to help improve profit margins, work environments, and output. These systems are utilized for functions like automatic picking and transport in warehouse inventories as well as to load and unload trailers, which frees employees from having to work in cold storage environments.
As Food Logistics notes, these technologies are developing in several key areas designed not to replace all employees but to work alongside them. They explain that batteries in these will need replacing every several hours, which means that workers will be able to spend most of their time in more value-add areas. In addition, these vehicles will need to receive their assignments from elsewhere, allowing employees to help optimize them.
Still, these AGVs will be able to move products in bulk and individual items, saving time while not requiring the immense cost of a conveyor belt solution. Powered by carefully designed robots and high-grade vision lenses, these machines will be able to properly identify specific items, move them as specified, and individually package them as necessary, allowing a food producer to offer a larger variety of bundles.
These vehicles operate autonomously throughout all of this, saving operators from potential hazards and human error that can lead to costly or even fatal injuries. The systems behind these vehicles are connected to larger warehouse sensors to help them safely navigate around people as needed and work with artificial intelligence to identify the best manner for completing tasks, such as where to store something or how much can safely be transported at once.
Types of AVGs
Camera Guided, great for precision navigation
Optical Guided, which navigate using photosensitive tape laid on factory floors.
Laser-Guided, which uses mounted laser scanners.
Interital Guided, which gets their bearings from magnets mounted underneath the factory floor.
Forked, like forklifts, for picking and moving material.
Unit load, made for transporting industrial equipment like roller beds.
Towing Vehicles, single-purpose machines made for transporting heavy loads.
Outrigger AGVs, built with two horizontal legs for lateral support and stabilization to move pallets and other equipment.
How Do Food Manufacturers Monitor Temperature?
The monitoring of a food’s temperature is the single most important part of keeping it safe and healthy for a person to consume. Modern factories can forgo recording the state of items individually and instead employ a technology called thermometry.
This innovative strategy utilizes IR sensors to detect the food’s temperature at key stages of the factory processing, including as it exits flash coolers, checking the temperature of soup in a large container, or measuring a product’s heat while it is still inside of an oven. However, products that require internal temperatures to be met must make use of contact thermometry, which comes into direct contact with the item.
All of this technology must be made to withstand the conditions of food processing facilities, and as such, it needs to be able to withstand temperatures and water splash. As Food Engineering Magazine explains, even the highest-grade circuit boards can only withstand temperatures up to 170°F, and all technology should be well sealed and made of grade 316 stainless steel.
These technologies can even be prone to degradation in extreme conditions, such as through vibration, submersion, or immersion. To that end, these sensors and vision lenses have to be constructed with the most durable materials possible, to provide ruggedized machine vision and thermometry at all hours of the day.
Of course, none of these devices are isolated and instead exist within a larger factory system that has a central hub for monitoring. Currently, these systems are not just wired, but can also be connected through wireless or even cloud technologies, as sensors can cover more space than ever before.
Solutions vary depending on your factory’s design and the retrofitting process, as some plants will have obstructions that make these transmissions difficult, and other equipment with electromagnetic fields or two-way radio signals can also cause disruption. To solve this, some have utilized a mesh network with many sensors and a wireless gateway, in which sensors overlap coverage areas. If anyone experiences an interruption, the rest will compensate for it.
Finally, there is also the ability to arm employees with handheld devices that connect to the greater network in a number of ways. These can store readings internally, work with wi-fi interfaces, or even utilize the employee’s smart devices to upload via Bluetooth.
These handhelds can also be employed by transit workers, as trucks may struggle to maintain constant internet connectivity. All of these options provide instantaneous updates as readings are found, allowing for greater control and compartmentalization in the event of an accident.
Through the use of automated equipment and high-quality sensors, food manufacturers are able to gather and arm themselves with more information than ever before. This gives them the ability to identify potential risks and the causes of recalled items, maximize output, and increase output overall.
These technologies will only continue to develop, leading to fully automated food supply chains with minimal errors and risk for human employees. Here, companies will have the opportunity to put employees to work alongside these machines to help maintain the existing system with engineering and analytical prowess.