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EQUIPMENT

Ushering in transformation and automation of food & beverage industry
Saturday, 18 July, 2020, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
Laltu Sinha
The Covid-19 pandemic outbreak has pushed the global economy and humanity into a crisis. High infection rate and adverse impact on public health systems led various governments to enforce nationwide lockdowns, thereby significantly impacting agricultural harvesting and production, manufacturing supply chains, trade, and related services.

Globally, most of the population is suffering from malnutrition and hunger before the Corona virus hit and, unless abrupt action comes into effect, there is a high chance of global food emergency (“an extraordinary situation wherein the people find it difficult to meet their basic necessities, or there are stern and instantaneous threats to human life and well-being”) soon.

The pandemic is impacting thespians in all parts of the food system. From the manufacturing to supply chain to the restaurant sector to foodservice companies and food delivery firms, the industry has been wearily coping with the situation. Alarmed by the extended lockdowns, masses resorted to panic buying, creating further food shortage and a significant disparity between the ones who can afford to stockpile on items and the ones who cannot.

Measures to control or mitigate Covid-19
In the coming years, the effects of Covid-19 along with subsequent mitigation actions and the evolving global recession could threaten the functioning of food systems. Measures to control or mitigate Covid-19 outbreaks are already affecting global food supply chains. Border restrictions and slowing harvests in some parts of the world are leaving millions of seasonal workers without livelihoods while also constraining the transport of food to markets.

Profound global economic shocks caused by Covid-19 will impact the cash flow and financial liquidity of producers, small and medium agri-businesses to financial institutions, due to inhibited production capacity, limited market access, loss of remittances, lack of employment, and unexpected medical costs.

Economic recession looming
With an economic recession looming due to the pandemic, food & beverage sales are burdened. Food & beverage companies are revisiting their sourcing strategies, rationalising their product ranges, evaluating the agility and flexibility of supply chains along with their route-to-market channels. E-commerce channels and distribution networks should be optimised and streamlined. The Covid-19 pandemic also raises the alarm on the urgent need to transform the world’s food systems. There is a profound need to rethink how we produce, process, market, consume our food, and dispose of waste.

The F&B manufacturing, as well as its supporting food automation industry, have witnessed significant growth in the past few decades; moreover, the invention of new products, further promises a substantial increase in the coming years. Shifting consumer preference towards affordable, easily accessible, and fast food options have ushered in the transformation and automation of the food and beverage industry. The precision, productivity, and profits from the automation in the food industry has influenced the F&B sector to adopt automated systems for various applications,such as pick and place, grading and sorting, processing, packaging and repacking, palletising and depalletising, logistics and so on. Additionally, the growing demand for processed packaged foods and the increasing food safety regulations have significantly surged the need for automation in the food industry.

Usage of automated systems
In light of the Covid-19 situation, the usage of automated systems can safeguard continued production and trade of food products given the restrictions on the movement for individuals. Automating food production can handle rising raw material costs, highly competitive retailers that always squeeze the prices, and soaring utility charges in a labour-intensive environment. The ability to imitate the quality and appearance of a product with the minimum use of ingredients not only improves line efficiencies leading to bottom-line profit but also can potentially increase sales. Also, adjusting the traceability of raw ingredients will provide the added benefit of enhanced food safety.

By ensuring fully automated systems during the pandemic, the risk of foreign impurities can be eliminated, offering a scope of automated sterilisation and disinfection systems. Automated food systems can also be controlled and monitored remotely. It also shrinks personnel risk by disavowing the requirement for an individual’s presence and permits the factory to drive remotely, benefiting the current situation as automated systems aid manufacturers in denying the risks of personnel loss or food contamination.

HACCP certification and GMP
FDA regulations bound the existing systems that entail manufacturing facilities to maintain a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) certification, as well as maintaining GMP (Good Manufacturing Practices) even during the operation of automated systems. The FDA also mandates that the equipment should be compliant with an IP67 rating to be compatible with existing disinfection modes.
Disruptions caused by Corona virus outbreak adds to existing concerns over quality control and cost optimisation. An automated route acts as an effective solution for enterprises requiring a proficient solution to overcome various challenges such as enhancing productivity, improving yield, optimising resource management, mitigating security risks, and improving asset management.

Food automation also finds its applications in the transfer and storage of goods within the warehouse. Automated warehouse systems can help in improvising storage solutions turnaround times without human intervention. These systems can track the product’s status and transport it for advanced processing whenever required. Since continuous processing is not ideal for certain products, automated batch processing can aid production with minimal personnel intervention.

3D-printed food
Another evolving trend amidst the current epidemic relates to the implementation and development of 3D-printed food. 3D-printed food is gaining traction by encouraging automated mass manufacturing with a fraction of the existing equipment constraint. While the present crop of 3D-printed foods holds minimal applications, their scope and uses are anticipated to rise in the coming years with advancements in printing technologies and ingredient integration. Though the current technology is at the nascent stage and somewhat narrowed by the speed and scope of these printers, however, technological advancements in printing systems can enable higher rates and sanction for machine-made 3D-printed foods.
In the current scenario, this technology can be beneficial where the aspect of staying home allows consumers to print their foods instead of cooking directly. It can also support in tailoring ingredient formulations, that can offer consumer and foodservice channels to save on raw materials cost and ensure the optimal utilisation for the final product.

High costs of printing technologies
Currently, technology is prevalent in developed regions such as North America and Europe, where the consumer and foodservice interest of these products aids their growth. In developing economies such as the Asia Pacific, the high costs of these printing technologies are limiting their growth in the current scenario.

Undoubtedly, the food and beverage managers are facing multiple challenges, owing to the incredibly fierce competitive rivalry and the fact that a single modification is bound to impact the entire supply chain. Organisations, no matter public or private, small or large, are opting for new ways to operate effectively and tackle the needs of their customers and employees as social distancing and quarantine measures remain in place. New marketplaces, evolving consumer spending patterns, rising food prices, shifting global appetite, and technological advancements are panned to showcase extensive changes in the food automation sector in the next few years.

(The author is research director, BlueWeave Consulting. He can be reached at laltusinha@blueweaveconsulting.com)
 
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