Now the machines take over

Meat processing companies are catching up in automation. This is due to higher labour costs and hygiene and safety standards. Packaging plays a decisive role here.

Automation is the order of the day at Herta. All aggregates in a packaging line are automated. Starting with the slicing machine via the vacuum packaging system, the quality control with scales, the optical control with image acquisition, the X-Ray scanner for foreign object detection up to cartoning, palletizing and foil wrapping. “Since we traditionally manufacture our products in many manual process steps, we can offer them competitively thanks to a high level of automation in packaging,” says Georg Schröder, Head of Automation at Herta GmbH.

The removal of the finished pallets and the supply of packaging material to the packaging line is also automated. Autonomous vehicles receive their transport orders directly from the packaging line. “We don’t need an intermediate or daily warehouse on the packaging line, the replenishment request for packaging material is served automatically and finished goods are picked up immediately from the line and forwarded for distribution,” says Schröder. This saves the company time and space. “Furthermore, we have an advantage in terms of safety, as the autonomous vehicles mainly use their own routes and are equipped with very reliable safety technology”.

"As we traditionally manufacture our products in many manual process steps, we can offer them competitively through a high level of automation in packaging".  
Georg Schröder, Head of Automation at Herta GmbH.

The meat processing industry is catching up strongly on the subject of automation. For a long time, it was not an issue for many companies with a high level of craftsmanship. But for some years now, companies have been increasingly investing in the optimization of their processes. Reasons for this are on the one hand increased labour costs and ever higher demands on safety and hygiene. But also larger companies with higher quantities are a reason why automation is increasing.

The products in Germany and neighbouring countries such as Austria and Switzerland are often inadequately designed for consistent automation, says Stefan Dangel, sales manager of the packaging machine manufacturer Sealpac GmbH. This has historical reasons in their handicraft origin and the associated production methods.

Concentration is the turbo for automation

However, the continuing concentration in the meat processing industry and the associated more efficient production processes would indicate a clear trend towards automation. “Reduced to the packaging process, this means well-considered empty packaging feeding, optimized product infeed, an efficient primary packaging process, automated labeling and labeling, including more and more required 100% control of secondary packaging data, and ultimately a highly efficient end-of-line solution.

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According to figures published by the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) in 2018, around 33 percent of the industrial robots produced annually are supplied to the automotive industry. This is followed by the electrical industry with 32 percent. The food and beverage industry, with a share of less than 3 percent of total demand, follows well behind. This shows that there is still some catching up to do in this area. Suppliers of automation technology have identified a growth market here. On the one hand, because the previous installations are still small, on the other hand, because automation can help to increase productivity, reduce accidents at work and ensure better hygienic conditions

Packaging machines ensure long shelf life

The pioneer in the food industry is the dairy industry. “A high degree of automation was already achieved here years ago through mergers and mergers of production processes,” explains Dangel. “For the sake of completeness, however, it should also be mentioned here that milk or pumpable cheese pre-products, i.e. curd, are easier to automate than a flexible pork cutlet made from different pieces of pork leg with its different weight and quality classes.

For Volker Sassmannshausen, Product Manager Thermoforming at GEA Food Solutions Germany GmbH, the key factor in automation is the availability of the machines. “We are not dealing here with the packaging of technical goods such as screws, for example, but with valuable foodstuffs with a limited shelf life,” he says. “Without the packaging machines, today’s flow of goods and current shelf life would be inconceivable.”

Automation can help to reduce downtime, for example through self-diagnosing machines. They compile information for maintenance personnel, but they also regulate themselves independently and intervene in processes to optimize them. “Another trend is Pick&Place robots that load and unload goods,” explains Sassmannshausen. In addition, it is important that the packaging machine is networked with the systems upstream or downstream of it, so that control of the process converges at one point. “To achieve this, the control technology must be interconnected and interfaces created and coordinated,” says Sassmannshausen.

Mechanical control is superior to humans

One area in which machines are increasingly performing human tasks is the inspection and inspection of goods. While people can only inspect random samples, machines will make it possible to inspect each individual product in the future. “Whereas man used to be the measure of all things as the control authority for product, packaging and labelling, reliable control in the high performance range can now practically no longer be carried out in this way,” says Dietmar Bohlen, Division Manager Multivac Germany, Sales Food North. As a rule, individual random samples were not sufficient to meet the legal requirements and guarantee consumer safety. The packaged goods and packaging must be reliably checked for visible foreign bodies even at high throughput rates. With regard to quality, it had to be ensured, for example, that the meat to be packaged or packaged had no undesirable properties and that the products were placed correctly in the packaging with precise weight.

Labelling is also a possible source of error: the label must be applied in the right place and the barcode must be legible. In addition, all relevant information, such as a best-before date, must be displayed. Of course, all information must correspond to the reference data stored in the system. “In order to ensure that only correct packaging reaches the point of sale, every single package has to be checked,” says Bohlen. “Only automatic inspection systems can perform this task quickly, precisely and reliably over the long term. Bohlen limits, however, that automation does not always make sense everywhere. The degree of automation must be adapted to the needs of the company and be economically viable.

Automation poses new challenges for companies. For example, a successful process analysis requires a great deal of data. Bearing temperatures, vibration values, torques, for example for preventive maintenance of drive units.  Speed, rejects, weights, order and quality data as well as the analysis of packaging processes – and many more. “For a really meaningful evaluation to take place, as much data as possible must be collected and combined and compared with experiences from other factories,” says Herta-Mann Schröder. As a result, the issue of IT security is becoming increasingly important. “The networking of all components has also made the attack surface much larger.”

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