12 Jun 2017


Automation is an important focus for the food industry as companies look to reduce operating costs and improve hygiene by limiting the need for human handling of foodstuffs.  Rob Allen is Divisional Manager for Interfood’s Packing Solutions Division and here highlights the vital role of product inspection in the packaging process and what needs to be considered when investing in automated packaging.

The degree of automation in end-of-line packaging is undoubtedly increasing.  One of the main drivers for this is cost as machines have the capability to combine a number of different functions that could well involve several people if the operation was being done manually.  There is also the precision and consistency that automation offers, as well as the potential to provide a more controlled environment – an important factor as food hygiene and traceability become ever more critical.

This latter point means that machines that can combine X-Ray or metal detection, with integrated checkweighing, are becoming an increasingly common feature in end-of-line packaging operations.  Products need to be inspected at the end of the processing line before being transferred to automatic case-packing systems which place the individual packs into cases for display on supermarket shelves. The supermarkets are adopting specific codes of practice to help ensure the goods supplied to them meet best practice.  For example, Tesco and M&S have adopted their own COP (Code of Practice) standards and a new issue of the BRC (British Retail Consortium) Global Standard for Food Safety, Issue 7 was published in January 2015 which is now regarded as the industry standard. So, when looking to invest in machinery to help automate the packaging process, one of the first things to do is check that it meets the specific requirements of the retailers that you are supplying now or in the future.  Protection of the consumer from potential product contamination is, quite rightly, key for all those involved in the food supply chain so having the means to automate that process and immediately alert you to any potential issues is invaluable.

Another factor in the decision to automate is to consider how the new machine is going to fit into your existing production line.  This might sound pretty obvious but with the increasing automation of lines comes a potential complexity in ensuring that the line efficiency is optimised. Investing in packaging automation can ultimately provide significant cost savings but if you make the wrong choice it can be a costly error. You need to consider how your new machine will synchronise with your existing production line equipment. Single HMI control for multifunctional machines which can be linked to other machine control consoles makes the line operation more simple and easy to control and optimise. In addition, systems where the product, variable print data and the barcode can be set up and continuously checked throughout the production run reduce the risk of errors and ensure the brand is securely protected.

Product inspection and control is an essential and legal requirement for food processors, however the machines have additional capability to improve the production efficiency and line control from the data they collect. Live data collection systems can be used which clearly identify OEE (Overall Equipment Effectiveness) and performance against target for production, technical and QA (Quality Assurance) personnel. They can also ensure that the processor is compliant to their retailer COP with secure live and historical audits and reports.  

It should be easy to set up and configure to meet the specifics of your particular operation.  It is also important that the machines can be operated easily, accurately and quickly. Touchscreen consoles with clear and easy to use functions allow the line operators to run the line in confidence and in the most efficient way.

With any automation comes the potential for production downtime.  A stoppage caused by issues in the end-of-line packaging operation can prove very costly.  Any machine added to the line therefore needs to be easy to troubleshoot and, if something does go wrong, then ideally it should be easy to discover what the problem is and easy to rectify it.  If the solution is not simple, then the support of the machine supplier becomes important, with a quick response to enable production to get back on line as quickly as possible.

For investments in capital machinery, the cost of ownership is becoming an important measure in making the purchasing decision.  The initial capital cost is, understandably, a factor, but a much better yardstick is what the cost of owning and operating the equipment will be.  For example, full detection and inspection systems are now available which are all electric, requiring no compressed air to operate and therefore offering very low cost of operation.  Service costs and the costs of spares should also be built into the equation to ensure that you are getting best value from your investment.

Interfood Technology is the sole representative in the UK and Ireland for the Sparc Systems range of checkweighers, combination checkweigh/metal detection units, weigh grading, multilane weighing and bespoke conveyors, along with Buhmann’s end-of-line packers, tray and case erectors and carton closers.