Automation is playing a greater role in helping packers, processors optimize their processes. But just how far and fast meat and poultry companies will further automate is anyone’s guess. But one thing’s for certain: the evolution will continue.
Over the years, forward-thinking packers and processors have talked and dreamed about operating a totally automated plant — and how it would maximize throughput, yields, product quality, and safety, plus allow real-time feedback on processes, among other things. Although very beneficial to companies that are committed to it, process automation is still not widely used by the meat and poultry industries, many technology providers claim. But part of the problem in determining how widely it’s being used lies in the translation of the term.
“First and foremost, you must remember that process automation means different things to different people,” says David D, Gustovich, executive vice president, operations, Food Practice for USC Consulting Group LLC (USCCG), an independent management-consulting firm based in Tampa, FL, with offices in Chicago and Toronto. “If you think of it in the truest sense of the words, true process automation means functioning ‘lights out,’ without any human intervention and one-hundred percent self-sufficient.”
This means the processes are being controlled automatically by software and hardware devices, working in concert with one another by constantly self-adjusting based on the flow of materials, and the way processes are performing relative to stated process control parameters and algorithms, he points out.
“The equipment and software are interacting in conjunction with one another making adjustments to ultimately drive the conversion process to optimum performance levels,” Gustovich says. “In the theoretical sense, that’s what process automation is. However, there are very few, if any, companies that meet the definition. What most companies are looking for really is process optimization — utilizing a blend of both software and hardware devices working in conjunction with some human interface and with human interaction — again using parameter settings, various attributes, and certain algorithyms, to make adjustments subtly and continuously throughout the process.”
People function more as a monitor of the process and react only when specific action is required to bring a process back into control to maximize the effectiveness of the conversion process, Gustovich continues. And that’s the model he’s seeing more companies within the food arena explore and gravitate toward.
“There are very few companies at that purest form of automation, but there are many that are attempting to move down that path,” he adds.
Most packers and processors declined to participate in this report citing proprietary reasons. However, Angelo Fili, executive vice president of Omaha, NE-based Greater Omaha Packing Co. Inc., says that although the production (animal harvest and deboning) at his company has not been automated, the electronic tracing capabilities of operating parameters such as temperatures, cycle times, and variances from normal limits are now readily available on all company desktops.
“This speeds decision-making greatly,” he says. “Live information analysis allows much earlier decision making. Computer logging and analysis capabilities are integrated in every aspect—from production planning, quality control monitoring, and Hazard Analysis & Critical Control Point [HACCP] verification to plant maintenance programs.”
True automation is using the product data (core temperature, weight, color, etc.), and actual process parameters (air temperature, viscosity, etc.) captured in real-time to control a process, says Thomas Lundqvist, product-line manager for FMC FoodTech. FMC FoodTech is a leading supplier of integrated food processing solutions that enhance the value and preserve the quality, nutrition, and taste of solid food products, he says.
“Today, the lead time between capturing this information and adjusting the process based upon it is too long,” he adds. “This is leading to unnecessary waste and losses in yield, throughput, and inconsistent product quality. Tomorrow’s automated lines will include devices to automatically capture product data in addition to tapping into equipment PLCs. In many cases, we will still see ‘open-loop systems,’ i.e., human intervention, to adjust the process based upon the data captured. But in some cases, closed-loop controls could be implemented.”
Such technology is currently not yet widely used in plants, Lundqvist says. But those plants incorporating process automation receive unique benefits.
“It is playing a great role since it allows the process to do more with less, i.e., to improve the productivity of existing equipment/processing lines,” he adds. “But it also improves product quality, which means more profits. Another big driver is legislative and customer demand on processors to validate product quality and provide detailed process traceability, i.e., to answer the question: How is a certain product processed? This is a more detailed demand compared to what we normally include in traceability, which is more about tracking ingredients than actual processing conditions.”
Automation allows packers and processors to do the same thing the same way time after time, says Charlie Rastle, Solutions Marketing Manager for Milwaukee, WI-based Rockwell Automation. Rockwell Automation is a leading industrial automation company with a focus on automation solutions that help customers meet productivity objectives. The company brings together leading brands in industrial automation, including Dodge® mechanical power transmission products, Reliance Electric motors and drives, Allen-Bradley® controls and engineered services, and Rockwell Software® factory management software.
“Process automation helps to improve quality,” Rastle adds. “Once you tune that automation so it’s doing exactly what you want it to do, you’ll see greater consistent quality. Automation enables you to collect data from a processing step easier. And that data can help you to improve the process.”
Rockwell Automation is very involved in helping the meat and poultry industries to input and improve process automation.
“We’re very involved because our company supplies almost anything the customer would want [thirty-thousand products]for process automation—everything from field-level components to controllers to motors and drives,” Rastle says. “Our investment over the years has been in connectivity; into an integrated architecture so the control architecture has a common programming interface [that allows connecting different components to form one system].
“We also have a very large service division that can help customers improve their processes,” he adds. “Is it regulatory compliance, sanitation, excess weight, or a problem in meeting customer demand? We work with them to provide the right solution—and where to deploy and improve automation.”
Rastle says process automation is being used by many meat and poultry companies, but primarily in material handling and prior to material handling, in operations such as putting products into a box, sealing boxes, and conveying boxes to material handling.
“There are huge amounts of automation there because that’s a great place to use automation,” Rastle says.
True process automation is the ability to reach the optimum output using a series of related flexible processes, says Mark Grace, president and chief executive officer of New Jersey-based BeyondVia, a decision/action/support company.
“It’s not just about machines,” he adds. “It’s about a series of processes that need to be flexible ranging from financial processes to sales and marketing processes to plant production processes.”
John Rinald, director of BOC’s Process Optimization Services, Murray Hill, NJ, describes true process automation as when set variables within a process fall outside of a spec that has been defined by the customer and then something changes automatically in the process to alter equipment to put it back into spec.
“This is a situation where you don’t necessarily need a human being to be monitoring to make sure something is in spec,” he adds, “and if it isn’t they don’t have to physically make the adjustment because it’s all automated.”
This allows customers to remove variability in their process.
“By reducing variability, the benefits they’re getting are improved yield, throughput, consistency, and quality,” Rinald says.
But again, Rinald says while process automation is being used by the meat and poultry industries — it is only to a small degree.
“There are opportunities to continue advancing process automation throughout the meat and poultry processing industries,” he adds.
In order to maintain margins, packers and processors must control their costs as effectively as possible, he adds. One way to control costs is to reduce variabilities in the process.
“Automation helps to reduce variabilities,” he says.
BOC’s Process Optimization Services differs from many competitors because it does not manufacture and sell processing equipment or software. Although confidentiality agreements prevent Rinald from naming food industry customers, he says they include some of the biggest companies in the meat and poultry industries.
“We will take anybody’s equipment and either get data from it or we will take anybody’s sensors and tie in networks to those sensors so we can capture data,” Rinald says. “Once we have that data, we also offer a service that works very closely with the customer to drive that data into useful information that leads to actionable items.”
Products and services
USCCG has developed, and continues to develop, a wide-ranging suite of automated business solutions, such as its live production planning module that in the poultry segment facilitates the buying and selling of eggs, young and mature birds; managing breeder stocks, hatchery set, and bird placement schedules; and the grow-out cycle. And through its strategic ally, Netherlands-based software developer Quintig, it offers advanced planning and scheduling software than enables food companies to operate their production lines more nimbly so they can do a better job of keeping up with ever-changing consumer demands for value-added products.
“All of USCCG’s automated solutions have the ability to interface and integrate with any existing ERP package in the marketplace today, whether it’s a legacy system or a home-grown system, or a big system like SAP, Oracle, PeopleSoft, and so forth,” Gustovich says.
“We are a results-oriented company,” he adds. “No matter the initiative — whether it’s process automation or process improvement — the bottom line is we’re going to do whatever it takes to drive favorable ROIs. We have the ability to utilize our existing in-house manufacturing execution systems that we developed specifically for the food industry or interface with third parties to help bring our clients solutions quicker and easier, and typically at a cost less than it would be if they tried to do it on their own.”
FMC FoodTech helps customers to optimize their processes.
“We are with them all the way from system design through implementation and analysis,” Lundqvist says. “Competitors often let the customer tell them what data to capture and what reports to develop,” he adds. “They don’t provide resources for process optimization either. Much is left to the customer’s ability and resources.”
BOC’s Process Optimization Services offers a service that incorporates monitoring technology, data capture, and reporting along with real-time data analysis and subsequently as close to real-time as the customer wants to get in changing their process to drive efficiencies and effectiveness, Rinald adds.
FMC FoodTech’s newest product offering is its LINK Process Analysis in combination with the D-Scan. LINK helps to simplify operations, improve product consistency, optimize yield, and assure product traceability while at the same time minimizing waste and food-safety risks. LINK Control, with its operating, monitoring, and data collection capabilities, gives processors a simple, easy-to-use operator interface that will increase productivity while ensuring uniform product quality and food safety, Lundqvist says.
The detailed graphical user interface simplifies control and quickly identifies problem areas
Recipe management system reduces set-up time and operational errors, and improve product uniformity
Data collection delivers readily available data at one central location, supporting traceability and process optimization
Dial-up connectivity enables remote troubleshooting that decreases maintenance costs
Custumizable security levels enable different access levels to production equipment for different personnel to decrease exposure to liability
Exportable report data allows tracking process conditions for quality control and food-safety documentation
The overview screen graphically represents the processing room equipment or layout to ensure ease of understanding and use
LINK Line Control is an optional upgrade to the LINK Control System the delivers unified control over the entire processing line — for faster set-up, fewer operational errors, and further reductions in waste and delay, Lundqvist says. Features include line-speed synchronization, progressive stop functionality, process line recipe management, and central data collection. LINK Process Analysis makes information actionable. LINK Consulting offers on-site consulting for processing lines, and LINK Service is a service concept designed to mirror a company’s maintenance needs in terms of both LINK control systems and the process equipment they serve.
When asked about his company’s newest product or service, BOC’s Rinald replies: “We are continuously improving our service putting into play the latest that technology has to offer in terms of data capture and data delivery. In the type of business we’re in, we constantly must ensure we are on the cutting edge of what’s out there in terms of data capture and subsequent reporting of that data —and turning that data into actionable activities.”
BeyondVia’s Grace says true process automation is the ability to reach the optimum output of flexible processes, and process automation contains three components: the should do, do, and check approaches.
“To automate something, you know what you should do. And then you have to do it, and then you have to check whether the should do and do are right,” Grace says.
His company uses a Decision Center approach, which consist of two components: decision software tools that is the should do, and the process opportunity stewardship, which is the check, Grace says. The Decision Center automates decision making —the do side is automated by equipment companies and other technical suppliers, and then BeyondVia automates the checking side.
“The benefits are they improve plant operations and the entire supply chain,” Grace says. “We are focused on the supply chain, and we are optimizing the process —you automate the do side; you keeping looking at it and ask yourself, is that what I should be doing? And then you check it and re-automate so you keep rising to optimal levels.”
Rockwell Automation is investing in two areas. One is the packaging area, which has a common standard on how to program machines.
“A lot of OEMs are starting to embrace that,” Rastle says. “”We’ve been building those standards into our control architecture and software so it’s very easy to program our applications.”
The company also has been investing in information management.
“Our investments are a lot in….how do we get better communication of data from the factory floor up into the business system?” Rastle says. That’s important in meat and poultry. Their orders change by the hour.”
“Be prepared for the unexpected and the challenge,” Rinald urges packers and processors. “They need to be ready to meet the challenge of change.”
In pursing process automation or optimization, processors must choose their implementation approach.
“Do they have the time and the money to invest in developing and deploying their own system together with an integrator/controls company?” Lundqvist says. “Many fail to realize how difficult this is and how much time and money it takes to get the system to where it needs to be.”
Processors shouldn’t be afraid to explore the use of process automation within their business environment, Gustovich urges.
“But be patient with the implementation process because like anything that is new and technology-driven, there is going to be a learning process that your organization is going to go through as it acclimates itself to that future state design,” he adds. “There will be learning, challenges, and obstacles along the way. That’s why it is important that the leadership at the executive level maintains a steadfast position that these types of solutions are essential to make them more competitive and more cost-effective in whatever product, industry, or market they serve.”
When a company undertakes a process automation initiative, it should make sure it has a sound project management structure in place to ensure that critical milestones are being achieved, and the right resource level is involved to bring the overall project within the time-frame and budget, Gustovich says.
“This is where we’ve seen some companies fail,” he adds. “Without this project management discipline and the application of the right resources, they’re going to find the cost is going to double or triple from the original estimate. Time will double or triple, and ultimately they’re not going to recover the value that the process automation was intended to deliver.”
Determining how to utilize labor most efficiently will help drive process automation.
“Some of this will be replacing labor with automation,” Rastle says. “As robot and vision systems improve, we’re going to see more machines on the floor to do jobs. We’re also going to get better at collecting data from the factory floor on quality—both tracking and tracing-type data so we can identify where we have problems. We’ll also get better at collecting HACCP-type data so we can ensure a quality and safe product is coming out of the plant.”
As the process automation evolution continues, will the totally automated plant ever become a reality?
“I cannot speak for poultry processing, but beef ergonomics and automation has been studied for many years by both industry and OSHA and has yielded virtually no automation,” Fili says. “I personally have butchered for many years and I do not see this as an upcoming invention.” NP
Technology providers participating in this report include:
One of the most labor-intensive operations in the case-ready and small package production area is the relatively simple functions of picking a tray or package off the conveyor, briefly visually inspecting for label or container wrapping flaws, and placing the product in a tote or carton in an orientation that will fully utilize the capacity of the container.
Such tasks should prove simple but are tiring for a qualified person. But they would also be expensive for an automated machine because:
Speed —Frequently 60 to 120 packages per minute
Frequent changeover to different tray or package sizes on same line
Different totes or carton sizes on same line
Film overwrap trays difficult to pick up mechanically at high speed
Variations in label positions and overwrap make machine vision inspections difficult.
One automation company relays it has tackled this problem head-on. In December 2003, Atlanta-based CAMotion, a producer of general-purpose industrial robots, joined forces with Georgia Tech’s FOOD PAC program to deign, produce, and install a beta test Case Ready Pack-off system (including total handling at an Excel Corp. plant in Newman, GA.)
CAMotion has maintained, monitored, and fine-tuned the system since then, and the project is reportedly a successful venture for all parties involved. Utilizing new robotic technologies licensed from Georgia Tech, CAMotion recently introduced a new standard line of Case Ready Packer Robots for the food industry. The company claims that the ROI on a two-shift packaging line is typically less than one year.
What do you get when you marry visual monitoring that’s being done remotely using a highly-sophisticated technology? The answer is the ability to measure some tasks that are currently considered not measurable, among other things. A wide range of video services offered by the ADT Select Vision brand powered by Arrowsight offer both security and business solutions.
In the fall of 2004, ADT Security Services Inc., a unit of Tyco Fire & Security, reported that Plumrose USA — a leading manufacturer of premium quality meat products – was to begin using ADT’s remote video audit service to help monitor food safety at its Iowa plant. Plumrose USA is one of the largest processors of premium sliced meats, bacon, and deli hams in the United States. Its signature brands include Plumrose, Dak, and Danola.
ADT’s video auditing service, based on remote video technology provided by Arrowsight Inc., delivers daily pass/fail “report cards” to Plumrose’s management team to help them identify whether critical quality assurance policies and procedures are being met at the plant. These e-mailed reports are then linked to video clips, providing visual documentation of the events uncovered by the auditing service.
“New technologies such as remote video auditing can help improve the safety of the nation’s food supply,” says Al Baroudi, president of the Food Safety Institute, who has conducted retail meat and poultry training for the USDA and dairy processing for the FDA and various health departments.
Mike Rozzano, general manager, Plumrose USA, says food safety has always been the company’s top priority, and the company invested in the remote video auditing service to help managers more quickly identify whether employees are following plant security procedures and critical food-safety regulations.
“Our success is dependent on maintaining our reputation for providing the highest-quality meat products,” Rozzano says. “With this service, we have access to detailed e-mail reports and video documentation to show that our quality-assurance programs are being met. As a company that has always embraced technological innovation, we are excited about the enhanced oversight this service can bring to the company.”
The ADT Video Audit Service will help ensure that proper inspection procedures such as temperature control are followed, and that employees adhere to the industry’s Good Manufacturing Practices, such as wearing proper attire, including coats, hairnets, and gloves.
This service also offers an extra check and balance for retailers, says Mike Snyder, president of ADT Services Inc.
“A manufacturer could share video audit reports with their retail customers to showcase the high quality of their products,” he adds. “Manufacturers who can show greater traceability of their food product can set themselves apart [from the competition].”
Here’s how the system works. ADT’s Remote Video Auditing Service operates through ADT Select Vision, a secure Web-based viewing service that provides access to video from any digital video recorder on a corporate network. ADT Select Vision provides authorized users with access to a secure Web site where they can view live or recorded video, control digital video recorders and cameras, save video to local hard drives, and share video by e-mailing links and comments. ADT Select Vision employs as its on-site hardware platform American Dynamics’ Intellex® Digital Video Management System.
Arrowsight, a Web-based application services provider, is the leading developer of remote viewing services and software. Its remote video auditing service transforms video and related data into tools for security, operational, and marketing improvements. Arrowsight’s remote viewing software was originally developed and marketed by its division, ParentWatch, and has since become the remote viewing leader for the childcare community with 10,000 users. This technology is also being used at such leading companies as McDonald’s and Pfizer.
“We hired a number of very senior executives to help us drive this business [in the food industry],” says Adam Aronson, chief executive officer of Arrowsight. These executives include a former president of Armour Swift-Eckridge, a former head of quality assurance for Borden, Temple Grandin, a former senior Wal-Mart executive, and a former president of IGA.
“We have found during the past five years that senior executives are going to customer meetings and closing deals with a food-safety pitch,” Aronson says.
When discussions start with executives about deploying Arrowsight’s type of service into meat plants to look at critical control points, it usually ends up being “a cost item,” he adds.
“A typical retail customer will send an inspector [to a vendor’s meat plant] about once a year,” Aronson says. “The supplier can say to his customer that he can continue to send that person once a year, but I on my own nickel am going to do this every day at every single critical control point, and I will have third-party verification.”
Any camera that could be placed inside a processing or slaughter facility for safety or animal handling monitoring can also be used to drive productivity and improve yields, Aronson says.
This technology can be used to verify equipment maintenance is correctly done, to ensure cleaning is being done properly at the right time, or even checking to verify pickle manufacturing was done correctly.
“We’re seeing tremendous financial marketing and food safety/animal welfare benefits coming from companies using these new services,” Aronson says. “On the animal handling side, we are working with Dr. Temple Grandin to take the work she has done in animal handling and create a vehicle to expand it on many multiples. Essentially, it gets back to economics.”
Arrowsight’s technology monitors the animal handling and slaughter process remotely on a random sampling basis to ensure the employees are following Grandin’s principles.
“For Grandin, this is a great vehicle to expand upon her incredible work she has done in animal handling and humane slaughter, which has had an amazing impact on the welfare of animals and the economics of the beef industry,” Aronson says. “I believe there are opportunities for standardization as it relates to video auditing.”
But does this technology cause some to think of it as a “Big Brother” tool? (i.e., from George Orwell’s “1984” where a futuristic government routinely spies on its citizens via cameras.)
“If you use it wrong, it is a Big Brother tool,” Aronson says. “But if you use it right, it becomes an amazing positive enforcement tool and a reward system for the workers. The workers should look up at the camera and say, ‘That’s my ticket to getting promoted or being recognized for doing good work.’”