Energy prices in 2022 have skyrocketed. This has seen operating costs for most businesses soar, at a time when many firms are already struggling to attract customers amid a cost of living crunch.
The food and drink industry is on the cusp of what’s been referred to as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’, or ‘Industry 4.0’. As new automation and robotics technologies emerge, the benefits of embracing these changes as a business can help boost significantly boost your business’ productivity.
Small businesses in particular can benefit greatly from the introduction of just a single automated process. Whilst the adoption of robotics and automation has previously been a costly undertaking, the maturation of various technologies means prices are likely to continue to fall. Research by robotics specialist HowToRobot indicates prices will fall 76% by 2025.
Additionally, whilst the uptake of robots in factories increased by 71% between 2015 and 2019 worldwide, only one in ten EU companies have automated part of their production. With ‘Industry 4.0’ on the horizon and numerous productivity benefits to your business and workforce, it is well worth exploring potential automation opportunities.
Covid-19 brought on a wealth of changes to the food & drink industry. In an industry where many workers operate in close proximity and at lower temperatures, Covid-19 infection rates have been high. A study by the British Medical Journal highlighted one case in the German city of Gütersloh in which 1500 of 7000 workers tested returned a positive result for Covid-19.
Operational measures such as staggering break times, mask wearing, and ensuring social distancing can help limit the viruses spread. The introduction of automation into your workplace however can greatly improve the welfare of staff; both in relation to Covid-19 and the overall health of your workforce.
Vipin Jain, co-founder and CEO of Blendid, sums it up best:
‘The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis that robots were built to address’.
This adoption of automation in this way is know as a ‘zero touch strategy’ and can greatly improve the efficiency of your operation. Manual handling tasks within the food and drink industry can often be dangerous and potentially lead to long-term health problems.
Approximately 95 million working days per year are lost through injuries sustained through moving around factories or warehouses. Using automation for repetitive manual tasks can reduce the health dangers to your staff as well as eliminate any close contact risks associated with the airborne viruses.
What if you were unable to sustain employment levels during the Covid-19 pandemic? What if you’re now struggling to fill the gaps in a workforce that previously came from European nations? Well you’re certainly not alone.
Ed Hewitt, field sales manager at Reiser, said:
‘Brexit on top of COVID-19 has been a perfect storm. What we have realised is that we relied on a labour force that were generally very skilled, had a very good work ethic and we have lost that and that has created an even bigger hole.’
Food & drink businesses are currently facing a chronic workforce shortage across many parts of the supply chain. Automation can be the key element to help boost productivity and efficiency in the midst of an unpredictable labour market.
An example of this is the use of automated guided vehicles, the modern replacement to the human-operated forklift truck in warehouse work. These vehicles can carry out a number of tasks that would usually require multiple workers: loading and unloading trucks, transporting heavy items, and ordering stock on shelves.
Research from Dutch Bank ING conducted in 2021 predicted the average number of robots in EU food manufacturing is expected to increase substantially, moving from 75 robots per 10,000 employees in 2020 to 110 in 2025.
The implementation of automated processes can also improve efficiency through staff growth. By making use of robotic services for repetitive and time-consuming tasks, your existing staff can be freed up to train in higher value areas. US restaurant chains including Denny’s are already shifting front of house staff into new roles by offering robotics training as part of their hospitality programs.
Cases like this show the need to engage with your pre-existing labour force before implementing automation at any level. This can allow you to assess any potential risks to your current operation and how best to support your staff during this change.
Improving traceability has become an increasingly vital part of operating within the food and drink industry. In a survey of food and drink business conducted by market research company IDC, 64% of businesses believe that a lack of flexibility and visibility in their supply chain could cause issues in the future. Improving your business’ traceability through automation not only allows you to improve the transparency your supply chain, but can also allow better inventory management and end-to-end product tracking.
Installing physical sensors throughout the distribution side of your business is one example of this. Using automation to collect this data can not only help with detail product tracking, but also allow available software to determine key areas of the supply chain in which gains can be made. These can include rapid changes to supply or demand, wastage, supplier relationships, and logistical issues.
So what if the worst happens and you need to urgently recall a product? Traceability is also key here as it can allow businesses to trace a product’s movements all the way back to the potential contaminant at the source.
An example of this is the use of automated temperate probes when testing pre-cooked meals. In the past this process has been done manually and can be easily be disrupted through a number of factors. The utilisation of robotic to automate the process can help maintain a consistent level of quality across all product lines.
Automation company CME’s Ian Marks explains:
‘By taking control of the process through the use of automation, products can be removed from the line at pre-determined and selectable intervals, and from all areas of the line to evaluate any cross-band temperature variation.’
The use automation to improve the traceability of your product can also help improve sustainability. Automated supply chains have the ability to identify where each product has come from, what practices went into its production, and its carbon footprint might be. Consumers are becoming more and more aware of where their food comes and the ethics those producing it, and automated traceability can ensure you’re able to answer even their most pressing questions.
Whilst a commonly held belief is that automation will lead to a wide-scale replacement of labour, the technologies can actually improve the welfare of you pre-existing workforce. Automation can protect against diseases through ‘zero-touch’ strategies as well as present new job opportunities for your staff.
The past few years have created a unique set of circumstances for the food and drink industry. By embracing the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ you can ensure that your business is best suited to meet them head on.
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