Low-cost automation for better line efficiency
Mar 12 2012, 17:12 | By Infomedia18
Low-cost automation (LCA) improves efficiency with low investment and requires minimum user training.
Image: SME Mentor
The Indian food industry mainly comprises small and medium enterprises, which manufacture a wide range of food and beverages using manually-operated, minimally-automated machinery. One may think that these companies are too small or under-resourced to automate. But this can be a myth if one adopts new methods to improve infrastructure efficiency, modify machinery to increase output, incorporate flexible solutions to handle new project, etc.–all at a low cost.
“The Indian food processing sector is dominated by SMEs, which have limited resources. Low-cost automation (LCA) can be of immense help to them as it increases processing line efficiency and reduces the overall cost. LCA is not only cost-effective, but its overall impact on the line is also high. Since LCA is a simple device or solution, it is easy to comprehend by operators. Thus, it takes lesser time to train the user,” says Didier Lacroix, senior vice president (worldwide sales and marketing) of Cognex.
Advantages of LCA
To stay competitive in the market, companies have to provide high-quality products consistently. “With products being exported to Western Europe and North American countries from India, manufacturers have to produce the best for their overseas as well as Indian consumers; and to remain competitive they need to opt for LCA,” says Sunil Khanna, vice president - strategic relations of Emerson Electric Company.
Why go for LCA?
Food manufacturers adopt LCA as it offers the following benefits:
Any new product is designed keeping in mind safety and risk-analysis requirements of the industry. Traditionally, automation solutions were designed for high-risk, hazardous applications in industries such as oil & gas, power, etc. These products have to meet the rigorous safety and quality standards and hence, are high priced, since huge investments are required for design, manufacturing, certifications, etc of such products.
“The food sector may not require such high-end, high-cost automation solutions right now as the level of hazards is much lower compared to oil & gas and power industries. Hence, an automation vendor needs to scale down those systems and products (designed for hazardous applications) to be used in food industry.
Automation manufacturers need to think about products that can address the concerns of food processors. There is definitely a big market for LCA products,” says Khanna. Currently, the big automation players are addressing the concerns of larger industries like oil & gas, power, etc., but there are some successful manufacturers in India focussing on LCA products.
Getting ready to adopt
“PLCs are good solutions for the food industry as primarily the inputs are discrete. It is more of machine control rather than continuous process control. Manufacturers should look at PLC-based solutions, which can do recipe management. They should be able to manufacture multiple products, with the same plant and structure, but little bit of modification. So, food manufacturers should look at flexible automation by which they can change the recipe of the plant with a click of button for a new product range,” says Khanna.
Pharmaceuticals industry has been using recipe management to improve manufacturing efficiency of the plant. Food manufacturers can take a cue from some of the success stories in pharmaceutical industry in recipe management and adopt it in their facility. For example, if a chips manufacturer, which produces five to six varieties of chips, wants to introduce a new variety, he can do that with just few changes in the recipe control program.
However, what concerns the food manufacturers is that control systems (logics, software, etc) are primarily built by automation manufacturers, and cannot be changed. Tomorrow, if they want to change/modify the software, they would have to call the high-cost engineers from the automation companies to do it. They are also apprehensive about going for annual maintenance contract, which are expensive. “If these concerns are addressed by automation solution providers, then the demand for LCA will grow manifold. So food manufacturers have to adopt flexible automation, in terms of usability and flexibility of the frontend software, which can be modified by food processor itself rather than calling the expert engineer,” opines Khanna.
With rising consumer awareness, every manufacturer has to ensure that quality products are reaching the market at the right time. “It is here that LCA plays a critical role. LCA ensures that right-quality products reach the consumers and that too at a reduced running cost for the food manufacturer. There is a huge requirement for LCA, especially during the inspection process, where food industry is facing several challenges,” opines Lacroix.
According to Khanna, the future of LCA is bright, provided automation manufacturers interact with food processors on a regular basis to offer customised solutions to this industry.
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