Fruits in plastic crates at grocery store

With the constant population growth, the food processing industry is always striving to respond to increase in demand, for both quality and quantity. Customers are pushing for fresher, healthier products, while hygiene and sanitation need to meet the highest standards. Regulatory agencies are requiring more stringent food safety measures, for example, through the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). And companies are looking for ways to improve productivity and efficiency, while at the same time facing a labor shortage, resulting in requests for more and more automation.

In our interviews with industry experts, we’ve talked about each of these pressures and the role automation plays in meeting them. For a new perspective on how technology can help processors meet today’s biggest challenges, we spoke with Nikola Vajda, the COO of PRIMEdge.

Vajda has been in what he calls the “food space” since late 2010. Before that, he was running companies in industrial manufacturing, which he describes as “very painful” compared to the food industry, which he likes because “the market is driven by demography.” That’s why it’s so resilient, he notes, “you have good times, you have bad times, but people always have to eat.”

He spent over three years as president and CEO of Marlen International before moving to PRIMEdge, Inc., where he’s been the chief operating officer since the spring of 2014.

Cozzini PRIMEdge is a multinational manufacturer with facilities in France, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Brazil, and the United States. Started by Giuseppe Cozzini over 100 years ago, PRIMEdge has grown into a global supplier of knife sharpening equipment, edge maintenance tools, and industrial blades for the food and meat industries. Vajda notes that the company’s products are used in “almost every food processing plant in the United States, and many around the globe.”

PRIMEdge also has divisions serving other areas of food processing packaging, and logistics (i.e., food distribution). Chiefly, it’s the parent company of Mimasa Washing Technologies, which it acquired in 2015. Regarding the acquisition, Ivo Cozzini, President and CEO of PRIMEdge, commented: “Food safety is the primary concern for all food processors. Mimasa plays an important role in providing excellent sanitizing solutions.”

Those sanitizing solutions include custom-made washing technologies for food processing plants and various aspects of food logistics, as well as pharma. Vajda explains: “Grocery chains bring in products daily in foldable plastic crates. After every use, these crates need to be washed and sanitized to remove the potential for contamination from any fruit, vegetables, or food items left in the crate.”

Mimasa makes washing and drying systems for crates, pallets, bins, vats, molds, racks, trays, and trolleys (like the ones used to hold food and beverages on airplanes). The company has built its reputation on the principles of quality, innovation, automation, and custom design.

Improving hygiene to meet consumer demands and keep food safe

Today’s consumers want products that are as fresh and natural as possible. This trend is driving processors to reformulate their products and redesign their processes to clean up their labels.

But, Vajda suggests, this isn’t quite enough. “In the United States, we still use techniques and processes where we keep food safe by adding ingredients to help extend shelf life and kill possible contaminants. With the trend toward healthy foods, we need to go beyond this and increase the hygiene and sanitation levels in the processing plants as well.”

One of the biggest opportunities for improvement he sees is in using washing and drying systems to provide consistent sanitation of the equipment used in food processing and logistics. This includes equipment used to transfer product between processing areas in the same plant, for example, a vat to move raw meat to a bowl chopper, as well as containers used for transporting products throughout the supply chain.

While Europe has mostly moved to automated systems, U.S. processors still rely to a great extent on human operators to sanitize equipment when a shift is over or there’s a product changeover. This typically takes the form of high pressure washing using solvents, and Vajda notes that many large processors outsource this function to companies that specialize in cleaning services.

However, even with a specialized company, the traditional manual washing paradigm presents a problem: people aren’t perfect. “It’s tough to find two operators who do things the same way,” Vajda says. “One person might do a great job; someone else might not. This leaves you vulnerable to contamination.”

With a machine, you don’t have to worry about variations between operators — it does the same thing every time.

Most processors agree that this solution makes sense. But still, the United States lags Europe in making these types of improvements, largely because we’re creatures of habit. “Processors understand the advantages,” Vajda says. “But when decision time comes, they lean toward the methods they’re accustomed to.”

The status quo might look fine, but it’s a disaster waiting to happen. Without naming names, Vajda mentioned a large processor that some years ago had a contamination problem that could be traced back to inadequate sanitation. The incident unfortunately resulted in casualties, and the processor has since adopted more modern sanitation practices.

“It’s unfortunate that a disaster of that magnitude had to be a wakeup call,” Vajda says. “We’re making improvements in all other aspects of processing. Let’s include sanitation.”

This is one reason Vajda is very excited about the upcoming PROCESS EXPO and the chance to demonstrate Mimasa’s solutions in a real working environment. “Seeing is believing,” he says. “Based on the interest we’re getting from our customers, I believe that once they see the equipment in action, it will be easier to talk about potential changes in their facility.”

A look at the technology behind the food plant of tomorrow

Sanitation isn’t the only area of food processing where technology can make an impact. We’ve asked every interviewee what they see coming down the road in 5 or 10 years, and nearly all of them have mentioned increased opportunities for technology.

Vajda has a unique take. He highlights the role of automation in helping improve plant productivity, an especially important topic as the manufacturing labor shortage grows. “Working in food processing facilities is one of the most difficult jobs,” Vajda says. “In protein processing facilities, it’s winter year-round. It’s around 40°F, you’re dealing with sharp objects, etc. Things are being done to improve conditions, but you still can’t raise the temperature. And if people can do something else in a more comfortable environment, they will.”

The labor shortage is one reason meat processors have embraced automation trends relatively quickly compared to the rest of the food industry. Poultry processors in particular are bringing European-style automation to U.S. plants.

Vajda thinks that two areas of these plants are ripe for robotics. The first is dealing with equipment, specifically, sharpening knives as part of a regular maintenance program. Today, this is mostly done by humans. But, in future, it could be done by robots. “We just need to figure out how to teach a robot to recognize the imperfections of a knife,” Vajda says.

The other channel is deboning poultry. Vajda notes the use of 3D technology that takes real-time images of birds to tell the knife where to enter to separate the wings, breast meat, and so on. This technology, which creates a custom cutting line for each bird, is being pioneered at Georgia Tech. Watch a video of the intelligent cutting system in action.

Finally, on a non-automation note, Vajda believes that the next few years will bring sizeable growth for the food industry in developing countries where the middle class is growing, like China, India, and Brazil. Recent market research supports this viewpoint. MarketsandMarkets expects the global poultry equipment market to grow 5% per year for the next three years, with the Asia-Pacific region being the fastest-growing market for animal protein.

You may have to wait a few years to see if Vajda’s predictions come true. But you don’t have to wait to see the newest innovations in automated washing and sanitation! One of Mimasa’s machines will be featured on the three full production lines that will be running during PROCESS EXPO next month. Be sure to check it out, and also visit PRIMEdge at Booth 1441. See you there!