The food manufacturers who are successful in today's fast-paced, ever-changing industry are the ones who can capitalise on fast moving trends, optimise their efficiency and productivity, best manage their supply chain logistics, and minimise waste. Chris Evans of Mitsubishi Electric looks at how advanced automation technologies can help.
Perhaps more than any other sector, the food industry faces the most intense pressures to meet the needs of a fickle market whose preferences can change on a whim. Added into the mix are increasingly demanding legislation (everything from the General Food Law Regulation to the EU Food Hygiene Regulations), a growing environmental awareness among the public, government-driven campaigns on what should and should not be consumed and the ever-present requirement to manage hygiene and food safety.
From high-profile recalls of processed food contaminated with horse meat to requirements for calorie counts on menus, the output of the food industry is always under the intense glare of governments and the public, nationally and internationally. In addition, material costs are highly variable, which can make profitability difficult to maintain at the best of times. Then of course there is the fierce competition within the industry and indeed the even fiercer competition throughout the retail chain.
Food manufacturers have to be able to move quickly to address changing consumer preferences with exciting new products. At the same time they are increasingly required to drive consumer choices, particularly in the wake of the western world's obesity crisis. It is reckoned that as many of a fifth of children are already overweight when they enter the school system, more than a quarter of teenagers are obese, and up to 40 per cent of adults in some regions are classified as obese, rising to well over 70 per cent as adults hit later life.
Government is pressing the food industry itself to address this crisis, leading consumers towards a healthier diet with recipes that significantly reduce sugar, salt and fat and which are packaged up with full nutritional information.
Not only is there pressure to address all of these challenging issues but at the same time, with routes to market increasingly dominated by large supermarket chains, food manufacturers are finding their profit margins continually squeezed. Maintaining the bottom line means addressing the industry issues in such a way that production efficiency is increased, waste is minimised, flexibility is maximised and traceability is assured.
The key to all of this is automation technology - automating new sections of the production line or updating existing automation systems to take advantage of new technologies and platforms. Automation offers food manufacturers many avenues for improving their processes, enhancing quality, meeting changing end-user expectations and increasing profitability.
Mitsubishi Electric is an acknowledged expert within the food industry when it comes to supplying automation systems that help food processors address the market forces that make it one of the most challenging and demanding manufacturing sectors. Mitsubishi Electric has a wide range of products, from simple application controllers to totally integrated systems capable of running an entire plant.
At the heart of any control system are PLCs (Programmable Logic Controllers). Mitsubishi PLCs offer flexibility and compatibility across the range, allowing the correct platform to be chosen for the task.
Adoption of open technologies allows the Mitsubishi platform to interface easily to other vendors' equipment, solving the problem faced by many production plants of disparate automation systems being unable to easily communicate with each other, making data gathering and hence production line performance monitoring difficult to achieve.
Automation can play a key role in eliminating machine downtime, reducing waste, increasing throughput, reducing cycle time, reducing machine changeover time and optimising assets. As well as high levels of control capability for flexible and efficient production lines, the latest generations of controllers also offer advanced data logging capabilities, meeting requirements for traceability, machine or production line operation efficiency, as well as helping to minimise energy consumption by recording asset or line energy performance.
Importantly, Mitsubishi Electric's technologies enable companies to deploy "˜automation scalability' on an as-needed basis. Scalability and seamless integration mean that it is equally possible to start by automating a single manual process as it is to take a holistic approach to the whole plant. It is as easy to start at the bottom by upgrading the controls on the production lines as it is to begin at the top with the supervisory controls and work downwards.
As the cost goalposts of food production continue to move, it becomes clear that volatility has become the norm. Food manufacturers must be able to respond to wide-ranging - and sometimes seemingly conflicting - market forces flexibly and cost effectively, with the ability to respond instantly. Automation technology holds the key to addressing these market requirements to ensure on-going success in what can only be described as a pressure cooker environment.
For further information about advanced automation technologies from Mitsubishi Electric, please visit the company's website at automation.mitsubishielectric.co.uk.