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Changing demands driving evolution of food factories

By Ahmed ElAmin , 19-Apr-2007

The food factory of the future will be smaller than the massive production plants of today, with more automation and the flexibility to switch to new products at the push of a button.

This was the vision held up yesterday by Thomas Ohlsson at a conference in Brussels examining the future research needs of the food industry.



Ohlsson, a professor at the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, is part of a team of researchers examining food processing trends and how these are affecting the building of manufacturing plants.



"This concept of the intensification of production, making much more in smaller places, has already been successfully implemented in the steel industry," Ohlsson told FoodProductionDaily.com in an interview after his speech. "It's a vision of replacing huge industrial operations with small, very specialised, customer-driven plants."


The new concept of the food factory is being driven by rapidly changing consumer tastes and demand. The change is reducing product life cycles, pushing companies toward faster innovation and the rapid development of new foods and beverages.



"The demands of being able to handle variation and of reducing costs are pushing a lot of conceptual changes," Ohlsson said. "Steady state continuous production is the goal today. In the future manufacturers will have to produce smaller batches of different products. The factor will have to be designed better.


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Shorter lead and production times will lead to more use of technology in factories, providing automated ways of shifting from one product to another as rapidly as possible.



The push by regulators and society toward more sustainable industrial production is also driving the need to increase efficiency throughout the whole food supply chain.



Manufacturers will have to examine how to integrate their processes more efficiently. They will tend to locate factories closer to customers, picking the most ecological option, Ohlsson said.



In addition, waste management and the efficient use of water will become more important in the future.



The concept of sustainability will also push processors to more efficient management of their supplies and their products. Information and technology systems will have to be shared with suppliers and customers throughout the food chain, he said.



The lean production method pioneered by auto maker Toyota in the 1980s and 1990s is being used a lot more in industry, he noted. Lean production refers to a manufacturing system that uses minimal amounts of resources to produce a large volume of high-quality goods.



"We need to evolve that concept a lot more in the food industry," Ohlsson said. "It means avoiding doing that's that do not bring value to the product."



He also advocates what he refers to as the "food assembly" approach, which involves producing a product closer to where it is consumed. The approach saves on transportation costs and allows factories to respond faster to a switch in demand, he said.



Short product life cycles will also affect the way equipment is built and set up in a factory. Equipment will become more automated but also increasingly modular, allowing pieces to be added or changed more easily.



"Factories will be involved in more customer specific production," he said.


Robots, mainly used for packaging, will be designed for the more sensitive handling of food products, allowing even greater automation, Ohlsson said.



Increasing automation is also being driven by the chronic lack of skilled staff in the food sector, traditionally a sector with low wages and a high turnover.



"There will be more automation and robots to take over the manual repetitive work," Ohlsson said. "There will be less people in the factory. Processors will need to upgrade the working conditions for the remaining staff."



He expects plant managers will have to be industrial engineers and not necessarily food technicians so as to handle all the increasing technical requirements in food processing.



The drive to be flexible will push processors into making their food supply chains more efficient.



"Today, everyone operates as competitors and antagonists," he said. "The old concept of buying raw ingredients at the lowest price is getting out of fashion. Long-term contracts are becoming more of the norm. "



Can he pinpoint any one factory that is leading the way to this future vision? Ohlsson cites Danish Crown's new pig processing plant in Denmark. The highly automated plant was built from scratch.



The two-day conference, Perspectives for Food 2030, was funded by the European Commission and ended yesterday.

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