High tech solutions to food supply challenges

The deployment of advanced technologies in food and beverage (F&B) preparation can help to raise safety and hygiene standards and make the entire sector more dynamic, competitive and successful.

Sami Atiya, president of ABB’s robotics and motion division

In the F&B industry, the use of advanced technologies is starting to accelerate as producers become aware of their effectiveness in driving efficiency and productivity and therefore competitiveness. Faced with heavy cost pressure, exacting safety and hygiene requirements, and the need to win over consumers in the highly competitive retail sector, food producers are finding that automation and robotics can be key drivers of performance and profitability. Robots in particular are ideally suited to picking and packaging large quantities of small items, such as biscuits, chocolates and sliced meats, at high speeds. They can also assemble food items – from pretzels to pizza.

Many F&B producers know that a profound change is underway in their industry. In 2017, a survey of F&B managers by the consulting firm RSM revealed that they viewed the adoption of new technology as one of the best ways for their businesses to increase profits.

A key benefit of applying advanced technologies in F&B is improved hygiene, which is challenge for producers all over the world.

According to the World Health Organization, each year 10 out of one million people are affected by listeriosis, one of the few foodborne diseases caused by bacteria that can survive and multiply even at the low temperatures inside a refrigerator. Fruit and vegetables can be affected by contaminated soil or fertiliser, and ready-to-eat foods can be contaminated during processing. The listeria bacteria can then multiply to dangerous concentrations during distribution and storage.

Experience shows that the more food processing can be automated, the lower the risk of contamination and the higher the safety and hygiene levels. This applies especially to large-scale, commercial food preparation. With automation and robotics technologies food can be processed in strictly controlled conditions, with consistent levels of hygiene and quality. Today’s automated conveyer belts and packaging systems are highly flexible, able to handle both the bulkiest goods and the most delicate products with speed, accuracy and flexibility. Even the cleaning and sterilisation of equipment can be automated to eliminate the potential for human error.

At ABB, where we have long applied our robotics and automation technologies to all manner of industries, including F&B, we are increasingly deploying digitally enabled solutions in food processing to take safety, quality and hygiene to the next level. Our cloud-connected devices alert operators to variations in temperature and humidity, while our new digital solutions offering, ABB Ability, gathers and analyses data from machines and robots and uses it to generate actionable information to avert breakdowns and optimise the energy efficiency and performance of our customers’ machines and systems.

The benefits of digitalisation extend beyond production. By connecting with their customers through digital channels and social media, F&B companies can obtain valuable feedback and insights into how their products are perceived and how consumer tastes and preferences are changing. With automation and digital technologies, they can then rapidly adapt or introduce products and packaging to cater to shifting tastes and trends.

Applying the latest generation of automation and digital technologies to food processing would result in a safer, more efficient and more dynamic F&B sector, and benefit all South Africans.

AUTHOR: Sami Atiya, president of ABB’s robotics and motion division