The food industry continues to struggle to attract new employees, retain current ones, and close skills gaps. With a healthy economy, there are plenty of jobs available in other fields and not nearly as much interest in manufacturing jobs as there was in the past.
These workforce issues have driven food processors and manufacturers to focus on simplifying equipment and operation interfaces, as well as to incorporate more automation on the factory floor, says Jarrod McCarroll, CEO of Weber, Inc.
For over three decades, Weber has been a manufacturer of meat, poultry, and cheese processing equipment and a leader in slicing technology. We last spoke with McCarroll in 2017 to discuss the latest slicing trends and technologies helping processors keep up with changing customer demands. Recently, we caught up with him to find out what’s new in the industry, particularly as it relates to workforce solutions, like automation and the Internet of Things (IoT).
Enhancing automation in processing and packaging
At the time of our last conversation with McCarroll, Weber had just launched a new x-ray technology to achieve portion consistency. Since then, the company has been hard at work developing more innovative industry solutions.
One of their most recent innovations is the Weber Shuttle System (WSS), which uses magnetic technology to move materials through assembly lines.
Traditional assembly lines include long conveyor belts and require workers at multiple stations. “Think about making a sandwich with different slices of meat and cheese as well as a spread like mayo or mustard,” McCarroll says. “Typically, you would have people at different stations portioning out each of those components, building a sandwich piece by piece, and sending it down the line to be finished.”
The WSS, McCarroll says, is like a data highway or complex roadmap that eliminates the need for human contact with the product. It’s an automated process that stops at each ingredient station, where it applies or deposits the exact portion onto the tray according to the given recipe. The tray then makes its way to the packaging station.
From there, the automation continues with Weber’s PickRobot. This system moves sliced products from a conveyor or shuttle system and onto the packaging equipment. So the whole process requires fewer employees and minimizes food safety risks.
“When I think about automation, reduction of labor, and increasing accuracy and speed,” McCarroll says, “this technology touches on all those aspects.”
Optimizing processes with IoT
Automation may reduce food contact points and aid workforce limitations, but IoT takes production to the next level by opening up communication across equipment and lines. In short, IoT provides data that gives plants more control over their processes and their profits.
To help processors capitalize on this technology, Weber now offers an IoT-connected product packaging line. The centralized communication platform grants customers total control over their processes, from product pre-scanning to final packaging. “We use sensors, scales, confirmation stations, computer vision, and cameras at data points along the way to optimize processes, minimize labor, and maximize throughput and profitability for the customers,” McCarroll says.
Thanks to artificial intelligence (AI), machinery in both processing and packaging lines, they can exchange information and make beneficial adjustments based on that data — from portion size and location to weight and density. “Our line of equipment is talking to upstream and downstream processes to correct portions, dial in target weights, and find other ways to optimize the line for maximum profitability throughout the process.” These adjustments are automatic. They don’t interrupt production or require employee input.
“Again, it goes back to that one single communication platform with AI built in to optimize and have total control over your process,” McCarroll says. “You have the whole line talking to itself, correcting portions, and adjusting along the way so that you're running at a very high overall equipment efficiency (OEE) with very good profitability.”
Early adopters of IoT solutions, McCarroll says, tend to be the companies that are continually reaching for the latest technology to help them stay ahead of the competition and better serve their customers. But some companies may have reached a point where employee retention and labor shortages are so severe that IoT becomes critical to the survival of their business. The IoT can help solve labor challenges by enabling remote equipment troubleshooting and servicing, as well as improving employee training programs. “If the employees working on the lines have a better understanding of how to run and optimize the equipment, they're more likely to enjoy what they do and stay on the job,” McCarroll says.
The rise of convenience
Finally, when we last spoke with Weber, the major consumer trend was products with hand-crafted appearances and flavors. While that demand hasn’t phased out, McCarroll says the current main focus is convenience.
Whether due to a busy schedule, a lack of cooking skills, or an on-the-go lifestyle, it’s no longer common for households to prepare and share meals at home. That means food packaged for convenience is experiencing substantial growth.
“On-the-go food and snacking continue to be a hot market in the industry right now,” McCarroll says. “We're seeing a big focus on foods that are healthy and satisfying, but portable. And there’s a demand for high-quality food in more available locations — not just your grocery store.”
Weber has exhibited at PROCESS EXPO since the beginning. McCarroll says that’s because the show is the biggest forum of the most innovative technologies with the industry-leading suppliers all under one roof. “Customers can come to see new technologies, talk about their processing needs, and have multiple conversations about their projects,” he says. “They're going to see five different production lines across five different vertical market segments from which they might be able to take some innovative perspective. And they're going to have everybody that they want to meet at the right place, at the right time.”
To learn more about Weber’s slicing and packaging technologies and find out what surprises the company has in store for the show, visit Booth #3648 at PROCESS EXPO.