Automation: The New “Big Cheese”

A labor shortage and advances in robotic technology are increasing demand for automated dairy packaging systems, such as robotic case packing. Image courtesy of Quest.

The Dairy Industry is Finding New Ways to Change and Evolve

By Justin Linxwiler, a regional sales manager at Quest

While the cheese industry has a rich heritage stretching back more than several thousand years, it is still finding new ways to change and evolve. We have come a long way from the early days of curing milk in animal stomachs, but even a brief market analysis can show we are still finding new places to go.

One recent change to the cheese industry that has continued to gain more popularity is in automated packaging. This trend has been exaggerated by several factors, including the quality of robotic technology increasing, coupled with available labor for packaging positions decreasing. Neither trend looks like it will change any time soon, meaning supply and demand for robotic automation is likely to continue to grow.

Perfect pairing

Dairy manufacturers are moving toward integration of automated end of line solutions, including palletizing. Image courtesy of Quest.

Just like most other packaging-heavy industries, cheese and dairy production facilities are suffering from an image problem, and as a result they are struggling to find candidates to fill positions on their lines. With more job openings than job seekers in the current market, the perception of packaging as a “dirty job” makes these roles even harder to fill. In many cases, the problem is not the positions themselves but a lack of awareness of what the role actually entails.

With automation, the dull, dirty and dangerous functions that in the past have driven people away are now managed by robotics. Employees are instead placed into more technical, stimulating jobs such as technical operations and supervisory roles to ensure manufacturing and packaging lines are running smoothly. Although many facilities are hesitant to bring in automation for fear of taking human jobs, the reality shows that automation simply reshapes the human role to be more desirable and attract more potential employees.

This trend in applicant behavior pairs well with the fact that technology in the automated packaging space has been rapidly advancing with new innovations in the past few years that are particularly attractive to the cheese market. In the past, manufacturers making and packaging bulk cheese blocks to go to another facility for processing may have been hesitant to turn over direct contact with food from easily washable human hands to a robot with mechanical tooling that requires purposeful and technical decontamination.

Recently however, robotic manufacturers and integrators have developed completely stainless-steel products that are sanitary for food applications. With these robotic innovations, concerns such as chipped paint or other debris collecting in the food zone are a thing of the past.

Packaging automation has become better for end-of-line processes as well, with dairy manufacturers moving toward integrated end of line solutions, they are driving increased efficiency in their facilities.  Every aspect of packaging products can be automated including product inspection (metal detection and check-weighing), case forming, packing, sealing, labeling, palletizing and pallet wrapping.

The fate of fromage

A robotic soft grip pick-and-place food handling solution enhances the dairy production process. Image courtesy of Quest.

With these coinciding trends already shifting the balance of how cheese products are packaged, the potential of economic upheaval may shake up the industry even more.

Abrupt change, such as the predicted recession, will often leave voids in the market, and larger companies may need to get creative to find ways to push product all the way through to the end user. A likely solution in this scenario would be integration to bring cheese making and processing into one space, which some are already doing. In most current cases, the cheese is made and broken up into large portions in one facility and then sent to a second for processing into consumable products. If the forecasted recession comes to fruition, relying on a second company to get products across the finish line may not be viable.

In response to this threat, many companies at the beginning of the supply chain may turn to automation to boost capabilities within their space without needing to go through the struggle of finding workers. Machinery is consistently becoming more available at higher quality for all stages of cheese making and it serves as a valuable option for growing under any economic conditions.

Curds and whey, nuts and bolts

Advances in machinery are making it possible automate all stages of cheese making, and produce and package products within a single facility. Image courtesy of Quest.

No matter what reason pushes a company to consider automation, there are a few key considerations about the facility and operation to keep in mind before selecting a specific machine.

A wide range of packaging automation is available on the market today. Knowing and understanding the types of products, sizes, shapes, and speed at which you plan to package on a given line and communicating that to prospective robot integration companies will help ensure you get a proper and cost-effective solution.

Package type and design is another critical component. Manufacturers are often supplying product to many retailers with varying packaging requirements. This variability can at times force manufacturers to invest in additional equipment. The good news is that packaging material manufacturers are constantly innovating. If you work with the right machine builders / integrators, they will be equipped to help you navigate the different package types available and make recommendations to accomplish the end user’s desired package without duplicating equipment.

Ergonomics is an important consideration when determining which processes to automate first. Bulk products such as 40-pound cheese blocks and smaller loaves of cheese are often packed into totes which require employees to reach deep into the tote to place. This provides a risk of lower back and shoulder injury. As those larger portions are processed down to deli or snack size products, they tend to move even faster, and though the reach may be less severe, repetitive motion injuries are still a risk to be considered.

Environmental factors are equally important to consider. Food grade processing plants utilize strong chemicals for sanitization, but these products may linger in the air and negatively interact with the machinery. Knowing what chemicals, and any additional aerosols, will be in the same area as the machine is crucial to selecting the proper materials for it. Finding the proper material is also dependent on what the robot will be handling. If the product is already packaged when it arrives at the machine, a powder-coated mild steel will sufficiently withstand general wipe down cleaning. However, if the robot is working directly with unpackaged cheese, a higher level of construction including stainless steel and epoxy coated materials will be required.

About the Author

Justin Linxwiler is a regional sales manager at Quest, a leading manufacturer of industrial automation equipment focusing on robotics and vision-guidance. He can be reached at justin.linxwiler@promachbuilt.com and you can learn more at www.questindustrial.com.

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