Challenges and Primary Solutions
As of December 2018, there was a large workforce gap in the snack production industry in terms of both skilled and unskilled labor. The problem persists because a large portion of workers are ready to retire and there are hardly enough people to fill the space, coupled with a lack of enough specialized skills to adequately fill their roles.
A report released by Accenture found that about 80% of all manufacturers reported a moderate to severe deficiency of skilled resources, leading to as much as 11% losses in income yearly. Additionally, a survey carried out by SME found that skilled labor was the hardest position to fill. Industry leaders have already begun taking certain measures to stem the adverse effects, but a lot more can still be done.
The design of the blades
A huge problem during snack production automation that prevents manufacturers from adopting automation is dealing with delicate pastries such as donuts. Machines will often damage them during the manufacturing process if the parts do not move at high enough speeds.
Fresh bread, tarts, and frozen pies present the same problem. Some preliminary research funded by various organizations estimates that any blade moving at less than sonic speeds are often inadequate.
At the same time, sticky pastries provide another unique problem not too different from the previously mentioned one. This can be dealt with by installing air blowers near the blade itself, preventing the product from getting in contact with the blade. Alternatively, the blades can be designed in such a way that they clean themselves between every product in the assembly line. This has the added advantage of preventing contamination.
End of the arm tooling (EOAT)
One of the most crucial parts of any process that involves robotics is end-of-arm tooling (EOAT). This refers to equipment that directly interacts with components since it lies at the end of a robotic arm. Due to its importance, recent advancements in technology has seen an increase in new innovations with regards to the automation process.
One of the most popular applications of EOAT is random bin picking, which involves the robotic arm moving random objects from one bin into another.
As one might imagine, the robot needs to have superior vision capabilities and be very flexible in the kinds of parts it can pick up. This has led to the rapid automation of difficult, repetitive and cumbersome tasks with very incredible precision, if they don’t fit certain parameters in the snack production automation process.
Despite all these advantages, adoption of new technologies has been slow due to cost concerns and unavailability. However, new robotics innovations present the potential for use in various processes, including packaging, lid lines and pan stacking/unstacking.
Collaborative robots, often referred to as cobots or semi-autonomous robots, can also be added to the snack production automation process since they can be used side-by-side existing and new workers.
Cobots have proven to be incredibly useful as compared to traditional monolithic structures for many reasons: they can have as many as seven degrees of freedom, allowing for more dexterity than ever, and can perform nearly any task a human being can. Furthermore, they are usually lightweight and only employed in specific parts of the manufacturing chain.
At the end of the day, the responsibility of replacing these systems falls solely on the heads of whoever is in management. The leaders must ensure their products are continually upgraded, so they remain as up-to-date and efficient as possible. A common occurrence in the industry is certain businesses falling behind the competition since they never adopted newer technologies. Playing catch-up is a lot more difficult than it may seem.
In the process, facilities that didn’t bother to set aside any funds for improving their machinery find themselves in a strange bind. Heavy machinery such as this doesn’t typically reduce in price over time, and they may find themselves unable to afford them. Even worse, since they have waited so long, they also have to catch up on the number of different expensive upgrades. In the end, most end up out of business.
Automation is attributed for the increased performance breakthrough during different phases of the manufacturing process. However, as the demand for snacks increases around the world, more pressure is being felt at the end of the packaging line.
Despite being mostly a manual process just a decade ago, almost all facets of the industry have adopted relatively new technologies that enable automatic packaging. Still, there are a lot of opportunities to improve efficiency even further, especially with the current problematic lack of labor.
Snack production automation should never be employed blindly, regardless of the benefits it brings, since the use of machines goes beyond the simple application of machines. Maintenance and small-volume SKUs are critical parts of any system that wishes to apply a fully or semi-automated system successfully.
New robotics systems provide a very variable and efficient landscape for different areas of several industries all over the world. Not to be left behind are snack and bakery operations. The most significant of these, as mentioned before, lie in newly-designed EOATs.
There are a lot of different kinds of EOATs for robots in the baking industry – force-torque sensors, auto-washing blades, collision detectors and more. These are powered in different ways, with newer machines being mostly pneumatic. Older machines will likely be powered mechanically, hydraulically or electrically, depending on which part of the manufacturing process they are employed.
More money will surely be pumped into pneumatic EOATs, which have grown fairly popular thanks to their ability to deliver large amounts of power while remaining relatively small. In the confectionary and snack industry, grippers are also bound to be employed during the automation process, with years worth of research having gone into them thus far and their usefulness as a whole.