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Automate to minimise food product recalls

Automate to minimise food product recalls

With numbers of food product recalls rising significantly, Robert Brooks of Omron argues that effective and integrated plant automation can play a lead role in minimising those costly and damaging recalls.

A recent news story reporting figures for the UK market, made grim reading for businesses in the industry. Far from falling, it reported that the number of food industry recalls actually increased in 2015 from 89 to 159 – a rise of nearly 80% on the previous year. Those businesses need no one to remind them about the huge repercussions, financial as well as reputational, that such recalls set in motion. 

The report also made clear that the reasons behind these recalls were many and varied. Just under 60% were based on unlisted ingredients (including allergens), but other criteria such as contamination with bacteria, metal or other materials also featured prominently. 

What is fuelling this increase? Ever-widening product ranges mean that manufacturers are producing shorter runs of more variants, each with their own labelling. Recipes for established products, too, are changing as NPD departments reformulate. New packaging grades and materials may be substituted for cost or environmental reasons.  

At the same time, audits from within the sector have increased both the pressure and necessity for factory traceability, both internally and externally. And as well as adhering to existing regulations such as the Food Information to Consumers (FIC) regulation in 2011, the sector is continually discussing new and improved regulations. Manufacturers will be only too aware of the plethora of existing and debated regulations, plus the advice given on handling a crisis should it occur. But our hope is that producers take a look at how existing technology can assist to meet targets to reduce recalls.

It would be easy for food producers to simply throw their hands up and claim that there are too many factors triggering recalls, and that it would be impossible to address them all. Recalls happen because of many diverse factors. Also, they are detected in all areas of the supply chain from ingredient supplier to retailer and consumer. Of course, it is true that there is no single ‘silver bullet’ to eliminate all these threats on an enterprise-wide scale. But there are a number of production-level checks which can be integrated into control and information systems. Taken together, they can dramatically – and reliably – reduce the risk of recalls. 

If we take a common type of production line including primary packaging (robotic pick-and-place and tray sealing), secondary packaging (top-load cartoning), and tertiary packaging (case-packing and palletising), there are number of points at which faults can occur. These can in turn result in an out-of-specification product and the threat of a recall. So, for example, the servo-driven tool lift on the tray sealer could be losing position over time, or seal quality could be compromised by imprecise temperature control or a change in packaging substrate. During the pick-and-place, a mistake in the hygiene routine could introduce foreign bodies into the packing area, or items may be missed out of a multi-component pack. 

At the coding and checkweighing stages, the scales may be set up for the wrong pack size. Code quality may also be poor. Even when the overprinting is correct, the wrong product label may have been loaded into the labeller. Similarly, with cartoning and case-packing, the wrong packaging may have been loaded on to the machines and there may be errors in the variable coding. Even at the final, palletising stage, item codes might not be read, and a different product may be palletised and dispatched. 

Again, despite originating in the same few metres of the production line, many of these potential problems may appear to be unrelated. In fact, all of these functions can be managed and monitored from a single control system. Vision systems for verifying packaging, product and codes, temperature control, sensors and robot controls can all sit on a single machine control platform with direct two-way connectivity with factory or enterprise-level databases. 

Vision systems may not be a part of the quality control armoury of every food manufacturer, or may only be one of several technologies used. In the past, equipment pricing may have prompted potential beneficiaries to treat vision with caution. But that perception is changing, and it is not only end users who are choosing to fit vision systems on their lines. Increasingly, OEMs are also integrating the technology into their packaging machinery. It can offer high-speed checking of codes, graphics (reconciling each with the product on the line), pack components, label presence, print legibility, shape, colour and optical character recognition (OCR). The multiple checks that vision can carry out even at the highest line speeds are making them an increasingly valued quality control tool. 

Database connectivity means that quality inspection and production data can be gathered, and traceability and regulatory compliance can be ensured. It also allows for the monitoring of collected data in order to spot adverse trends and trigger predictive or preventative maintenance. 

Sensitivity to temperature trends in areas such as primary pack sealing is also important in order to safeguard seal quality and product life. Growing numbers of today’s food packs rely on a combination of heat and pressure for a tight seal and to ensure freshness. The individual machine controller can offer this level of connectivity while bringing under one umbrella logic, motion, vision, safety, temperature control and robotics. 

Automation, as discussed here, has been adopted by other industry sectors, sometimes driven by strict regulation. There is no reason why the food industry cannot do the same, for reasons of efficiency and flexibility but also - increasingly - in order to minimise the risk of product recalls. Of course, the traceability function within automation also means that, if the worst does happen and product is recalled, systems will make it much easier to identify which product is affected and where it is located.

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