According to a recent survey by Food Processing, higher automation budgets are viewed as a crucial component that companies require in order to remain competitive in the market. This 2017 survey looked at both large firms and small firms (52% with more than 100 employees, 48% with fewer), and asked important questions to top executives, middle managers, and plant operations professionals regarding automation projects taking place within their companies. Understanding the results of this survey can create new insights into how companies in the industry current view automation.

Change - It’s Happening

Almost half of all respondents reported that spending on automation has increased in their companies over the last two years, and only 4% reported that their company has reduced spending in this area. Overall, companies listed their top automation priorities as packaging and processing improvements, but many have still used automation to manage their supply chain, improve their refrigeration infrastructure, or even improve their wastewater system. Many of these changes take into account environmental sustainability, with less than a third of companies citing no sustainability initiatives at all.

What Drives Automation

So what usually galvanizes companies into embracing automation? Overall, the survey found that companies use automation primarily to reduce labor and improve throughput. This is surprising, since labor reduction alone has traditionally been the primary factor in a company’s decision to justify improvements through automation. In fact, when asked which factors were considered while calculating the ROI of automating a process, a higher percentage of respondents chose “increased uptime and throughput” over “value of displaced labor.”


Preventing Injuries… or Causing Them?

However, it also seems that many companies prioritize other factors as well. For example, about half of those in the industry found a reduction in workplace injuries as an important benefit of increased factory automation. In addition, almost half of the respondents cited a lowered risk of cross-contamination as an important beneficial factor of using automated systems to replace workers. After all, replacing a human with a machine can cut down on biological contamination that workers might bring into the factory. On the other hand, some food professionals disagree with this assumption, pointing out that complex machinery may be more difficult to clean and sanitize sufficiently.

The Industrial Internet of Things

One of the growing technological innovations occurring in the industry is the increased usage of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT). Although 43% of respondents cited no usage of IIoT in their companies, over half of them did indicate that their companies are experimenting with this technology. This experimentation may take several forms, from connecting field devices to a wireless network, to providing some personnel – or even vendors – with remote access to data, through a cloud-based archival of company data.

Automation Pays Off -- Maybe

Concerns about taking on an automation project vary, according to the study, but overall the main concerns seem to be financial. The decision-making process seemed to primarily include questions about whether the presumed paybacks of a given change would actually materialize, as well as whether the project would be affordable with the given capital expenditure restraints. The vast majority of companies seemed to have no major concerns about whether the introduction of automation would lead to a loss of flexibility, presumably due to the fact that robotic systems are generally easy to reprogram as needed.

The Bottom Line? It’s the Bottom Line

Overall, however, the main issues that seem to be holding back progress in the area of automation are financial. While various opportunities for improving companies through automation abound, the capital to fund these projects is often limited. Those who conducted the survey strongly believe, based on the information that they have gathered, that this will change over time. As companies begin to fully appreciate how recent changes have impacted their productivity, they will eventually be more willing to fund additional automation projects as well.

Written by Rob Brown