It took a pandemic for us to take seriously something we take for granted: We all rely upon one another.

Supply chains have taught us that. Food and beverage processors and automation suppliers, both considered essential businesses, have experienced many of the same problems during the pandemic: Gaps in the supply chain caused by people either being sick with COVID-19 or having to quarantine themselves if they were exposed to the virus.

COVID-19 has taught us a lot about the way we work in a plant or office, and companies—both food and automation—have made a lot of changes and workarounds to keep people safe and facilities open. I asked automation suppliers how they’ve coped to keep their own companies supplying parts and equipment to food companies, and if food companies are looking toward automation to fill in some of the gaps caused by people absences and shortages.

A string of good news about potential vaccines has everyone looking forward to curbing the pandemic, but nevertheless, the lessons learned from how we all reacted will help us to cope in the future.


Open for business

Like food companies, ABB Robotics was considered to be an essential business during the early stages of the pandemic—largely because of the robots and other automation components it makes for food, beverage and pharmaceutical related businesses, says Joe Chudy, vice president and general manager. Many of the robots ABB sells to North American businesses are made in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Great precautions were taken to keep ABB employees safe, in many cases exceeding OSHA guidelines. To aid customers’ operations, ABB has been offering a support package to help keep production lines running, including a special package of digital solutions as well as virtual and field service support initiatives to help businesses maintain production lines during the pandemic. The company has been helping its customers and system integrators with virtual consultation and audits to identify issues and provide support, and to keep spare parts flowing. In some cases, in-plant customer visits have resumed with the necessary safety precautions.

Allpax, a ProMach brand, has been diligent about doing everything necessary to protect its employees and customers throughout the pandemic, and to keep the workforce operating at full capacity, says Jeff Arthur, technical sales director. Daily health screenings (including temperature checks), and best practices such as social distancing (including having many employees work from home all or part of the time); wearing face masks while walking around the plant and talking or meeting with colleagues; daily sanitizing of the facility; leveraging on-line technologies to minimize large gatherings at the plant or to keep in touch with and/or to provide service support to customers; limiting non-essential travel and non-essential visitors in the plant; and travelling by car as much as possible; etc. have allowed Allpax to keep its workforce healthy.

“We are busier than ever, including continuing to provide on-location support to our customers,” adds Arthur. “Our service team has employed very creative ways to provide essential services to our customers while making sure they keep themselves and the customers they serve COVID-free.”

Festo rolled out a comprehensive safety plan, including physical measures as well as protocols to guide daily actions to keep fellow workers safe, says Tom Manley, sales director, food and packaging. Physical measures included standard items like additional cleaning personnel and temporary barriers between work stations to more subtle measures like installing motion activated plasticware dispensers in the cafeteria and rethinking how employees get their daily coffee.

Safety protocols range from daily temperature checks for each employee to detailed protocols for contact tracing and quarantine of potential cases.

“We’ve even applied robotic process automation to help ensure that each employee is able to successfully check their temperature at kiosks installed throughout our operation,” says Manley.

 “In cases where we faced resource challenges, we were able to respond with cross-trained employees from other departments and temporary support from the local community,” says Manley. “In some cases, the friends and family members of existing employees were able to come in and help out whenever we needed additional bandwidth to support our customers.”

Food companies: Lessons learned

The recent pandemic has shown the industry that any repetitive manual labor role is vulnerable to shortages in staff and labor in unforeseen events, says Sean O’Grady, Festo director of North American sales operations. These tasks that are many times ignored have become the forefront of automation for added redundancy. Cross training has also been as big a lesson learned in this challenging time. Many food companies relied on a very limited knowledge base for various machine operators and tasks; losing one person put the production in turmoil.

For most food processors, COVID-19 has elevated the prior concerns about how to increase productivity with fewer resources, says Emerson’s Thomas. Before, these concerns were driven by an aging workforce and shrinking talent pool. Now it’s driven by limitations on how many people can be in a plant or A/B shift requirements; indeed staffing is an issue.

CHL’s Leer suggests that in people-dense plants, another option where possible—is to reroute product flow to create a safe operating distance between personnel.

Automating machines can help, but what’s also needed is access to insights, alarms and data, says Thomas. This is why many processors are looking toward an Industry 4.0 environment to provide actionable information.


Staying operational

System integrator CHL Systems has kept itself operational during these challenging times by developing common sense policies designed to keep staff socially distant but still effective, says Mark Leer, chief engineer. “All project management and engineering staff have state-of-the art laptops and rotate in and out of the office on a preset schedule designed to minimize direct contact. We have also limited our conference room attendance to a greatly reduced number based on best practices from the CDC.”

COVID-19 proved to be a good reason to increase inventory, so Fortress Technology Inc. took action.

“We built up our stock of machinery, which could be dispatched to customers and installed and validated within seven working days,” says Director Pierre DiGirolamo.

“To keep production lines running smoothly and for technical support, our teams have been available around the clock on email, via visual and video tools and telephone to troubleshoot issues,” adds DiGirolamo. “Where on-site technical support has been needed, our service engineers have safely attended manufacturing facilities to resolve technical issues.”

APRIL Robotics in the UK kept a small skeleton staff in the office to process spares and perform engineering work while those—that could—have been working at home, says Jake Norman, head of sales and innovation. Norman says lessons learned from the pandemic enabled the company to become more efficient and effective at delivering customer solutions.

Like programs offered by the U.S. government to help companies keep employees and remain functional, the UK helped out as well, says Norman. “As the UK remained in lockdown throughout March to June, we were awarded a grant from the UK government to digitize our operations. As a result of the steps taken, we’re now working smarter, faster and more productively, as well as having adapted our offices to make them more COVID-secure for our teams as well as our customers. This included building individual pods for people to work in alongside other more standard measures. This has allowed us to continue offering 24/7 remote support to our customers in mainland Europe and the UK, as it’s been difficult to visit sites during this period.”

With its main manufacturing center in Spain, which was hard hit by the epidemic, HRS Heat Exchangers was able to let office staff work at home. The company also found the internet valuable in another way. “In North America, although HRS has offices in Atlanta, Georgia, all staff are working from home,” says Matt Hale, international sales & marketing director. “We have committed to taking part in three virtual exhibitions due to their cancellation as a physical event.”

While essential workers have been working in a reinvented workplace—from wearing masks and gloves to wiping tools, surfaces and parts—and staggered hours—working remotely has paid off for Stäubli North America Robotics Division, says Sebastien Schmitt, NA Robotics division manager. “Video conferencing has replaced formal meetings without compromising the content, the quality and the goals to find automation solutions for our customers.”


Maintaining the supply chain

AVEVA, a global company with about 4,700 employees, found that company’s extensive and reliable network allowed it to operate efficiently as the world was experiencing significant disruption, says Sree Hameed, global marketing manager, consumer goods industry. In fact the company uses the very products it sells.

“Through AI-infused supply chain optimization—a service which we also offer to our customers—we already had a firm grasp of our production processes,” says Hameed. “As leaders in industrial software in the cloud, unifying data and AI, we have the tools to support our customers’ business continuity, such as providing them with increased visibility to keep teams up to date with the operational impact of delays in the supply chain and better insight into operating expenses (OPEX) and capital expenditures (CAPEX).”

Emerson, which makes automation products from sensors to controllers, worked very closely with its suppliers to make sure that it was able to keep its production up and running, says Derek Thomas, VP of marketing & strategy, machine automation solutions. The company has critical infrastructure and manufacturing facilities around the world.

Like Emerson, Endress+Hauser experienced very few disruptions, whether production, logistics or service, says Dr. Andreas Mayr, COO, Endress+Hauser Group. “Our supply chains have remained stable. We operate a highly complex logistics system for our high-grade, customer-specific production. In some cases, our products exist in millions or even billions of variants, and average batch size is less than two units.”

“We were successful in maintaining the availability of materials at the plants and we continued to supply our customers,” adds Mayr. “We did this despite freight transport restrictions and temporary plant closings mandated by governments in India, China, and Italy. Close, long-term partnerships with our suppliers have always been important to us. They know they can depend on us—and vice versa.”

When it comes to supply chain issues, Marcus Parsons, Rockwell Automation global consumer packaged goods director has good advice for suppliers and food processors alike: We have implemented a more intentional, defensive supply chain resilience approach where we look to mitigate against unplanned disruption by comprehending our supply chain vulnerabilities. We created an integrated supply chain strategy that leverages a multi-site manufacturing strategy for us and our key manufacturing partners. Redundant manufacturing plays a major role as many organizations think about regionalization or re-shoring initiatives given their ability or inability to respond. A two-pronged approach of agility and resiliency helps us ensure that our product supply is available and protected for our customers.


Changing robotics roles

ABB’s food customers want to accelerate the adoption of robotics and automation—both to protect the health of employees and enhance business continuity, says Chudy. But they’re also looking for flexibility and ease of use. “Where robots were traditionally used to automate simpler processes like loading packages onto pallets, they are increasingly used for higher value processes, e.g. directly preparing the food. [There is a] focus on traceability, food safety and hygiene.”

An interesting takeoff involves the mix of robotics with other technologies. Chudy describes the integration of ABB robots with B&R Industrial Automation tools. For example, B&R ACOPOStrak Intelligent Track Technology quickly routes products from processing station to processing station on independently controlled shuttles. The system adapts to the variables of the product being packaged, rather than the product conforming to a rigidly sequential process. This allows for the mixing and staging of products in a specific order, on-the-fly changeovers, and works with multiproduct variety packs.

The big area of interest in food processing is on the primary side of handling and preparation, says Stäubli’s Schmitt. The food industry is a difficult environment for people to work in and staffing historically has always been difficult—and now with COVID-19, it is limiting line workers’ ability to be present for work. Social distancing is difficult to achieve in typical primary food handling lines, and automation makes it safer. “We are seeing a rise in interest due to the inability to bring people into processing plants and work at a safe distance,” says Schmitt.

APRIL Robotics has seen a keen interest in robotic weighing applications, a process area that was difficult to automate and labor intensive, says Norman. Previously manufacturers were reliant on people to scale powders to a recipe as that technique offered the greatest flexibility. By moving robotics upstream, manufacturers can achieve total flexibility of their scaling operations while not only removing the person from the task to prevent COVID-19 transmission in weighing area, but also boosting productivity, reducing human error and labor costs while also increasing traceability.

What do processors expect of automation?

FE asked automation suppliers what processors are expecting of automation solutions and suppliers in the time of COVID-19. Note that these wants are just as important when there isn’t a pandemic—it’s just that coronavirus has magnified the needs. A summary of these wants, which can help either directly or indirectly with social distancing, follows:

  • The removal of human beings from high-contamination risk areas, helping to improve throughput and increase sanitation
  • Labor efficiency, including covering the lack of skilled labor and reluctance of unskilled personnel to work in harsher environments
  • Alleviating bottlenecks at end-of-line packaging
  • Improving overall product yield
  • Improving product quality
  • Reducing risk of injury to employees in “heavy-lifting” jobs
  • Adding robotics to “process” applications besides the usual packaging and palletizing
  • Giving managers a digital bird’s-eye view of the plant floor
  • Beginning to digitize/automate operations without scrapping legacy systems
  • Improving overall manufacturing and energy efficiency while becoming more sustainable
  • Realizing that a completely “hands-off” automation system may not be technically and financially viable; system integrators can help determine what works and doesn’t
  • While automation can’t fix a “bad process,” a food manufacturer may need help in fixing a bad process before automating it
  • Automated systems still need management input
  • Automation suppliers should provide devices/equipment with intelligent “edge” devices for remote troubleshooting and maintenance 
  • Automation suppliers to serve as “partners” in technology as tech people become harder to find
  • Automaton suppliers to help processors with improving economies of scale at their plants
  • More accurate and faster inspection systems with digital capabilities


More automation

In the past, retort equipment was not very automated and took a crew of people to operate it. With the significantly increased demand for retail shelf-stable food products coupled with the challenges with the workforce created by COVID-19, there has been a large demand for new automated retort systems and existing system upgrades, says Allpax’s Arthur. Automating and upgrading this equipment reduces the reliance on manual labor and decreases operating errors and risks, improving operating costs, sustainability and profitability.

Having remote monitoring built into modern equipment can be a real help to processors, but sometimes processors don’t realize the potential already exists or they don’t want to use it for security reasons. “Many of our digital metal detectors are equipped with ‘dial-in’ remote access support software,” says Fortress Technology’s DiGirolamo. “However, a large number of customers have been unaware of this feature so we have remotely assisted them in accessing it.”

“Additionally, we have been highlighting to customers the benefits of our Contact Communication Software that can perform virtual equipment validations and confirm the proper functionality of systems to ensure they are failsafe,” adds DiGirolamo. Processors can also group multiple units or systems within this contact software to monitor and control a variety of metal detectors and checkweighers within a single interface.


Digital transformation

Food processors have gone to great lengths to meet heightened and volatile consumer demand while maintaining quality standards during the pandemic—all while navigating operational changes to protect employee safety, says Jason Chester, InfinityQS International director of global channel programs.

“Namely, plants have had to cope with workforce shortages due to absences as well as proactively reduce the number of employees working per shift in order to meet social distancing guidelines,” says Chester. Many workers at these sites have had to step into unfamiliar roles to backfill critical plant-floor activities left open by these absences. Meanwhile, staff such as quality and plant managers, whose duties do not necessitate being physically present on the floor, have been shifted to remote work—many for the first time in their careers. With these changes, processors have faced great difficulties with data accessibility and workforce efficiency, especially for those using manual methods and legacy systems for process monitoring and quality control.

“COVID-19 has made food processing organizations take decisive action globally to meet new challenges and maintain operational excellence, which has led to an increased demand for digital transformation across the industry because it allows for a shorter lead time,” says AVEVA’s Hameed. The current crisis is accelerating the cloud and the use of data in increasingly sophisticated ways to provide visibility and certainty into operations.

The digital transformation, says Hameed, can help processors manage OPEX and CAPEX through downturns and upswings, avoiding significant supply side constraints. Multi-site MES standardization initiatives help establish a level of digital uniformity across sites and production lines, which involve adding new instrumentation for older plants, standardizing reporting and best practices and improving flexibility. And, training benefits from AI-enabled micro-learning and on-demand technologies—where staff members can learn anywhere on any device.

Digital technology has helped Endress+Hauser work in three areas with its clients, according to Ola Wesstrom, industry marketing manager—food and beverage:

  • Virtual instructor led training, along with online access to troubleshooting tools, as well as online and phone technical support.
  • Identifying areas for throughput improvements by supplementing or replacing laboratory quality check steps with inline measurement.
  • Ensuring asset health by continuously monitoring and alerting to potential issues before complete failure to reduce production interruptions, with required manual intervention kept to a minimum.

The digital transformation has also made other things possible. Equipment changes and upgrades look different this year, says Rockwell’s Parsons. Current travel restrictions and distancing requirements have made it difficult for OEMs and SIs to complete onsite testing. Remote design, engineering, and testing capabilities have been essential to keep plants up and running. Food and beverage companies have been able to quickly adopt technologies necessary to complete remote FATs (factory acceptance tests) and remote troubleshooting and diagnostics. Additionally, augmented reality tools, such as FactoryTalk Innovation Suite Vuforia Chalk, support live conversations with audio, video, and the ability to make notations on the screen to support collaboration. And Rockwell Automation offers secure remote access tools and services to provide a trusted platform for food and beverage companies to securely connect with their suppliers.

“At InfinityQS, we’re seeing more food processors prioritizing investments in cloud-based, data-driven solutions, as social distancing and remote working will likely remain in place for the foreseeable future,” says Chester. “In fact, we recently conducted a Global Client Survey in which 75% of the respondents reported that more of their personnel are currently working remotely.”


Investing in the future

Investing for the future is what Chester sees going on now. “We’ve seen an uptick in demand for our online technical training classes. In June, we even saw a 316% spike in our professional services hours—compared to March when the outbreak occurred—with clients seeking support to rapidly roll out new cloud-based solutions.

“Ultimately, these investments are not only short-term fixes to navigate the current pandemic reality, but also tactical steps for longer term transformations that promise flexibility to support distributed teams and optimal performance no matter what the future brings.”

 

For more information:

ABB Robotics, www.abb.com/robotics

Allpax, a ProMach brand, www.allpax.com

APRIL Robotics, https://www.oalgroup.com/april-robotics

AVEVA, https://www.aveva.com/en/products

CHL Systems, https://chlsystems.com/

Emerson, www.emerson.com/pacsystems

Endress+Hauser, us.endress.com

Festo, www.festo.com

Fortress Technology, www.fortresstechnology.com

HRS Heat Exchangers, www.hrs-heatexchangers.com

InfinityQS® International, Inc., www.infinityqs.com/connect/giving-back-with-enact

Rockwell Automation, www.rockwellautomation.com

Stäubli North America Robotics Division,www.staubli.com/en-us/robotics