The food and beverage processing and packaging industries must strive to keep abreast of the latest automation innovations both to stay competitive and to help boost their ROI -- all while cost-effectively building high-quality products. Here are the five most important industry trends affecting food and beverage manufacturers' ROI.
Automation Offers More Flexible Options
Obviously, when a plant scales past a certain size, automation becomes necessary for the facility to remain competitive in the market. An automated plant leverages numerous advantages, mainly low cost of operation. A notable trend here is the increasing rise of automation technologies that are more flexible and efficient than in the past.
Consider, for example, the Anysize technology, an innovative passive, pneumatic-based positioning system for Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET) conveyor lines. The system frees food and beverage plants from having to make time-consuming manual adjustments when changing over a packaging line to accommodate different bottle, package, or case sizes. A recent compact version is designed specifically to fit into tighter spaces for conventional mechanical conveyors.
In the past, dedicated beverage packaging lines handled just one or two products, with either fixed guide rails or two-position pneumatic cylinders attached at 3-ft to 4-ft intervals along the conveyor for changing the guide rail width to a second size. When the number of available bottle sizes increased, bottlers continued adding more cylinders until they ran out of space on the machine. The arrangement made it costly, difficult, and time-consuming to package new beverage products and was typically limited to four bottle sizes. In contrast, system users need only input a desired guide rail width, and the technology automatically makes a thousand or more positioner adjustments, to tolerances of a few millimeters from each other, down the entire length of the line.
In building the more efficient system, the developer first considered using electronic technology to make what's typically called an "infinite positioning" system that can accommodate any bottle, package, or case size within a certain size range. But systems that used traditional electronic linear actuators and stepper motors were prohibitively expensive for packaging or conveying lines that required multiple positions.
The pneumatic-based solution provides a simpler and more cost-effective approach because it is based purely on the pressure of the plant's compressed air system. The pneumatic system has but one moving part per positioner and quickly pays for itself by providing faster changeovers while reducing labor and maintenance costs.
In another example, this time from the world of controllers, Programmable Automation Controllers (PAC) represent an advancement over Programmable Logic Controllers (PLC), and can thus affect a plant's throughput, efficiency, and ROI. A PLC is typically a single microprocessor device used to automate operation in food and beverage processing equipment as well as manufacturing machinery. PLCs were created in the 1960s to replace relay-based systems. Most PLCs are programmed in ladder logic -- a graphical representation of coils and contacts that mimics the appearance of wiring diagrams engineers used to represent physical relays and timers. Ladder logic defines sequences of machine events and reactions via real-world input and output devices. Typically, modern PLCs are programmed in PC-based software. They are said to be best suited for both simple and high-speed machine control.
On the other hand, PACs are more suited to complex automation system architectures. Most PACs are programmed in current programming languages such as C or C++ and, as such, can support all of the control requirements across a modern food and beverage plant such as digital and discrete I/O; analog I/O for flow, temperature, and pressure; and voltage, current, and low frequency analog inputs. Current PACs, or so-called "next-generation" controllers, besides being able to connect to almost any FieldBus, are using Ethernet-based platforms such as Powerlink or EtherCAT, both deterministic technologies that let the system "know" if information got to where it needed to go. Some newer PACs even have HMI runtime software embedded in it, which gives users a single development environment for their controls and HMI application. Users can then connect an inexpensive Web-browser screen off the controller to see the developed screens. In addition, a new mobile app lets plants browse into their controller for real-time data analysis using mobile phones or tablets. Current PACs are often used in complex labeling and packaging applications, and they can show quick return on ROI because they support highly increased production efficiencies.