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THE FUTURE FOOD FACTORY: 5 TO 10 YEARS – PART ONE

Having already predicted what the average food factory may look like in 50-100 years’ time, head of process at Integrated Food Projects, Ed Keenan, now gives his ‘toned-down’ predictions for what a typical food factory may look like in a 5 to 10 year timeframe.

In the first of a three-part blog series, Ed discusses the automation and design part of the industry, and what we can expect to see in food factories in the near future.

It’s an exciting time as some of the older ‘set in their way’ and ‘technologically reluctant’ managers retire, making way for a more technologically minded younger generation to bring about a long overdue change, which will have a positive impact on the industry as a whole:

1. Artificial Intelligence

The realisation of artificial general intelligence is probably the biggest change in the long-term future of food production, and actually to life as we know it. Current artificial intelligence applications such as voice recognition are known as Artificial Narrow Intelligence (ANI), whereas Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) is the intelligence of a machine that could successfully perform any intellectual task that a human being can.

Emerging technology such as AGI that may someday, in addition to being able to learn, could be able to also redesign its own hardware and internal structure. Experts are still yet to align in terms of timescales for this to happen, but current thoughts are anywhere in the next ten years. Once this is achieved, our factories may also be designing themselves.

In the meantime, we are already seeing AI being used in many of the applications covered below.

2. Automated Storage & Retrieval System (ASRS)

These systems automatically move items in and out of storage without the need for humans or forklift trucks and enable higher density storage compared to conventional racking. Costs can now be competitive in terms of build and land savings; even without taking into consideration the ongoing labour savings. These systems also have the added benefit of allowing storage within conditions which are unfavourable to humans, such as Ozone.

3. Automated Guided Vehicles (AGV):

Automated guided vehicles, or AGVs, allow us to automatically transport items around a factory. An AGV is a portable robot that follows marked lines or wires on the floor, or in some cases uses radio waves, vision cameras, magnets or lasers for navigation.

Again, an AGV is an alternative to using humans for jobs which can easily be done by machine.

Current limitations do exist in the food industry, as the levels of fat, amount of moisture on the floor or drainage slopes can affect the vehicle’s movement. These issues are in the process of being ironed out, so that the AGVs can cope in these conditions, and it won’t be long until we start to see these appearing within production areas.

4. High Ingress Protection (IP) rated food safe cobots:

The majority of cobots (collaborative robots that work with humans) do not currently have a high enough IP rating for use in a high care, wet environment. These are coming soon though and will work alongside humans without any need for guarding, thus using less space.

There have been some amazing advances in gripper technology, including the current Bernoulli non-contact grippers that pick products up without actually touching them, and the modular soft grip tooling sets that can be easily adapted for different situations.

However, due to speed, payload, and reach limitations, perhaps what people really want is not a cobot, but an unguarded robot.

5. Sophisticated vision and camera systems:

Sophisticated vision and camera systems have been essential for the progression of cobots and robotics in general over the last few years. Not only do these advances help the industry to better protect workers (light curtains, for example), but they also allow for other tasks to be automated such as the identification of missing objects from a pack.

These systems are also able to identify heights and locations for case packing or palletisation, and we can now view the inside of a product in a 3D and in a non-destructive manner.

Using MRI, we can now analyse food quality and safety as the technology is able to penetrate packaging without damaging products at a cost to the business. This in turn allows for inspection of the actual spatial 3D structure of food.

More recently, technology has been implemented that can identify chemical composition using chemical imaging technology or near infra-red hyperspectral imaging. Technological developments with vision systems also means that we can review individual nutrients using energy dispersive X-ray fluorescence.

6. Lights out fully robotic AI systems:

In the coming years, I think that we will start to see factories almost soley running themselves with lights out, fully robotic AI systems. With advances in sensors and a reduced number of people working in the factories, there will be no reason to illuminate an entire facility during operation.

Without people, the production environment is open to atmospheric conditions unsuited to humans, for example UV and Ozone which can have positive impacts on food safety and shelf life.

Ultimately, in time, this means that the people who work in the factories will need completely different skill sets compared to today. It will be very interesting to see how this impacts the job landscape in the coming years.

7. Vertical farming under artificial lighting without soil:

Farming without soil and under artificial light not only reduces environmental impact in terms of food miles, but it also dramatically reduces the cost to suppliers. It gives food producers the ability to efficiently recreate the specific environmental conditions required to grow any crop, without needing to import produce from countries afar. Going vertical has the advantage of lower land costs, and it means:

  • We can grow in a contaminant, bug, and pesticide free environment.
  • We can achieve higher density growth and yield, with less wastage.
  • We can create ideal annual growing conditions, timing harvest and supply perfectly with consumer demand.
  • We can even change the flavour profile of a crop.

8. Self-diagnostic and predictive maintenance scheduling machines:

There are several ways that a machine can identify future problems, these include part-failures, the best of which can analyse data captured from the machine to make live assessments against peer machines and components from around the world.

These data captures can create extremely powerful predictive algorithms that are able to schedule maintenance, order replacement parts and even instruct shut-downs where needed. Some are able to work with rostering and can schedule personal appointments to ensure that everything runs smoothly.

Self-diagnostic and predictive maintenance scheduling machines use AI, Industry 4.0 principles, The Internet of Things, and Big Data. The machines are essentially predicting an event based on an anomaly within this collected big data through the use of algorithms. The outcome being results that are far beyond human analysis capability.

9. Stainless steel 3D printed parts:

How often have you had to wait for a part – sacrificing valuable operating time – even with overnight courier from Europe or same day delivery? Sometimes we can find ourselves waiting for critical spare parts that then end up being laid dormant, stored onsite and never used.

Using a 3D printer to access stainless steel parts in a matter of minutes is revolutionary – saving time, money and any stress that comes with waiting for deliveries. Using lasers and rapid cooling we avoid the brittleness associated with conventional 3D printed stainless steel, which actually provides up to three times the strength of stainless steel parts manufactured using standard techniques.

The space and money tied up in holding spare parts could be freed up to help finance the procurement of the printer.

10. Continuous Liquid Interface (CLIP) printed parts:

CLIP is a photochemical process that balances light and oxygen over a UV curable resin to rapidly produce parts. The parts are dragged out from the surface of the liquid in a process which is much faster than other printing methods. This process provides an exceptional surface finish and an interior with a similar structure to injection moulded parts.

Stay tuned for our next instalment in this blog series, where Ed will be discussing the technical and process trends predicted for the food factory design industry in the next 5-10 years.

OUR CLIENTS

Integrated Food Projects have partnered with Kettleby Foods on a number of high-profile multi-million pound capital projects since 2003/4, helping the business to develop and grow. Throughout that time they have provided cost-effective and efficient solutions on development projects both at our existing ready meals production facility and also in creating a new satellite facility. The projects at our existing facility were managed without impact on our ability to service our own clients, and all projects have been delivered within budget, in a timely fashion and to the requisite standards of safety and quality. Their team work ethos and professional approach ensure successful projects and I would utilise Integrated Food Projects in the future without hesitation.

- Jarrod Thorndyke, Production Director

I have worked with Integrated Food Projects on many capital expenditure projects since 2004, the latest being the development of the new plot of land adjacent to our main site. They successfully employed a project delivery process to ensure the integration of a leased modular building solution with the development of the site infrastructure to improve logistics and Health and Safety. Their staff are always positive and enthusiastic and have fostered a team-work approach ensuring another successful project delivered. I look forward to working with them again in the near future.

- Engineering Manager, Major UK Ready Meals Manufacturer