Almost a third of food processing and 94% of packaging operations are using robotics, and both say they will use more in the future, according to a recent survey by the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies. Half of companies interviewed for the survey said they are focused on increasing the level of automation in the next three to five years, and plan to increase spending on capital equipment in the next two years.
Factories are getting busier, with 77% of the total value of products coming from 12% of the nation's processing and packaging plants that have 100 or more employees.
Manufacturers are adding more products, adding to workload at processing and packaging plants. Four out of five already deal with more than 100 product SKUs. The majority of them predict that number will continue to increase, so the lines will need to change more often.
Many consumers want to know where their food comes from. Much of it comes from California, which has more processing plants than any other — about 5,000, since many products and ingredients are nearby.
And wherever they are, processors have seen some massive changes in the past few years. The shift from canned food — viewed as less healthy — to shelf-stable products has caused major shifts in equipment and processing. “Consumers are demanding healthier, higher quality food that is convenient and ready-to-eat,” the report on the PMMI survey says.
The 2015 Food Engineering reader survey found nearly 71% believing processing throughput would increase in the coming year, largely thanks to automation. Lines can be switched faster from one product to another, production speed can be increased and less productivity is lost due to workers being not there. (Robots never fail to check in!)
Automation makes it easier to adapt to customers’ changing requirements, the survey report says. One manufacturing engineer said in the report, “We must constantly change to meet customer requirements/demands. This either requires us to modify existing equipment or purchase new equipment, which is a challenge with our existing footprint.”
The increasing use of automated systems and robots is going to require workers with more education and better qualifications than many of today's bring to the game. This is not a case of technology putting people out of work. It's businesses' need to remain productive to compete. In order to maintain a supply of eligible workers, there's ultimately going to have to be a change in how, and what, high school and college students are taught.
As consumer demand for ever-new products and variety increases, as their numbers do (the world's population has increased by roughly 14 million today, to a total of nearly 7.5 billion people who need to be fed), processors and packaging folks to step up their game, to meet the demands of that growing market.