Set to Autopilot

Automation proving to be essential to sorting success

Published in the January 2016 Issue Published online: Jan 06, 2016
Viewed 1119 time(s)

Continued advances in automation and robotics are making the global food manufacturing and processing industries safer, more efficient and able to deliver higher profits. These improvements are not only necessary to boost yield, but also inevitable as automation and robotics continue to evolve.

Research by international business consulting firm Grant Thornton validates this claim. Its recent global survey of 2,751 executives in 36 economies shows that manufacturing businesses across the world will be replacing more than 5 percent of their workforce with robots in the near future. However, when this does happen, more than half the companies surveyed plan to redeploy affected staff. Of those companies that keep staff, 28 percent would expect existing employees to control the machines that replace them.

Another research project, the 2015 World Robotics Survey by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR), found that by 2018 global sales of industrial robots will on average be growing by 15 percent year-to-year. The IFR says that the number of units sold will double to around 400,000 units with five major markets—China, Japan, the U.S., South Korea and Germany—representing 70 percent of the total sales volume.

Looking specifically at food processing, a report by Automated Packaging Systems says Californian strawberry farmers have invested in a 14-arm robotic harvester to pick faster and reduce labor costs. The same report highlights that Wageningen University in the Netherlands is undertaking a project called Clever Robot for Crops. The project’s objective is to show how robots can select perfectly ripe fruit accurately and faster with tests currently focused on grapes, apples, strawberries and peppers.

Ongoing advancements in automation and robotics technology are driving improvements in all aspects of food manufacturing and processing. This does mean that certain types of manual labor will be replaced. However, experience has shown that in both developed and developing economies, as automation increases, food processors look to employ more highly skilled workers to operate the machines.

Manual food sorting requires significant management time within businesses to organize and run teams of people on a continuous basis. In this situation, it is often a difficult task to ensure both consistently high rates of yield and sorting effectiveness are maintained. Manual food sorting is also becoming increasingly seen as an unattractive employment opportunity. People everywhere have become more aspirational and see manual food sorting jobs as a stepping stone, one to which few are committed long-term. This cultural shift serves to accelerate food processors’ desire to embrace automation, as machines do not need to be kept motivated and engaged.

An example of this shift toward automation occurred with China-based Yantai Lushun Foodstuff Co., Ltd. The company processes over 1,000 tons of brown raisins per year, as well as dehydrated apples, dried figs, dried cherries, strawberries, apricots, peaches and pears.

Yantai Lushun Foodstuff installed a Helius C 640 free-fall sorter, manufactured by Tomra Sorting Food, in response to rapidly increasing labor costs and the fact that it was becoming more and more difficult to recruit young people to work as sorters.

“Labor costs have doubled in the past five years, and it is harder to find young people committed to the type of sorting job we offer here,” says the company’s chairman, Luxia Zhang. “Installing a Helius allowed us to replace the need for 40 pickers while still being able to process more than 1 ton of produce per hour. In particular, the machine is able to identify very small foreign materials that are difficult for pickers to see. The machine’s double-sided detection capability also means that it can discover if there is a small pit or stalk on the back side of, or even inside, the raisins. Those things are impossible for pickers to find and sort. This type of automation has allowed us to enhance food safety, create a better yield and generate productivity gains.”