Automate to Innovate:

How manufacturers are tackling challenges and reaping rewards that new technology brings

By: Kathleen Furore

Whether the product is cheese or meat, companies that manufacture products for the deli industry are streamlining automation in an effort to control labor costs, improve food safety and optimize speed and floor space.

Just what are some of the latest advancements shaking up protein processing? And how are companies in the thick of the production process overcoming the challenges inherent in staying abreast of continually evolving technologies?

Gossner Foods, Inc.

For the answers, Modern Deli Mobile reached out to Michael Mortensen, plant manager at Lower Foods, Inc. (makers of Double L Ranch Meats) in Richmond, Utah; Mark Wirtz, engineering manager at Masters Gallery Foods headquartered in Plymouth, Wisconsin; and Dave Larsen, VP of cheese operations at Gossner Foods, Inc. in Logan, Utah to discover how automation is shaping the industry.

Lower Foods, Inc., Richmond, Utah

Latest Advancements

Photo courtesy of Masters Gallery Foods

According to Mortensen, Lower Foods has seen many advancements in slicing and packaging technology, both in product packaging and case packaging, over the past few years.

“Many of these advancements have come in response to a tightening labor market and the challenges that present to us as an industry,” Mortensen explains.

The advancements Mortensen says have impacted the industry over the past few years include:

*Rapid advances in the effective use of imaging/scanning to improve portioning of whole muscle products. Demand for those high-quality products has increased over the past decade, and advancements in technology have enabled companies who manufacture these kinds of high-quality, clean label products to more efficiently and effectively slice and package them, Mortensen notes.

*Advances in the way sliced deli products are loaded into finished packaging, from auto-loading to pick and place via robotics. These advancements, says Mortensen, not only add automation to production lines but also can also increase food safety and quality by limiting the number of times that product is touched and handled.

*Advances in case packing and material handling. Examples include automated case packing by pick and place and other technologies, and automated palletizing via robotics.

*Advances in data collection for traceability and e-commerce. “Many of these advances are intertwined with each other, and the increased capability to collect and utilize data is helping to morph those companies in the deli meat industry who leverage it into more informed and customer service-capable entities,” Mortensen says.

Interestingly—but perhaps not surprisingly—the food industry historically has been a bit late in adopting new technologies.

“The cheese industry, like other foods, has generally been behind the curve with regard to automation,” says Wirtz, who posits that a previous lack of “a lot of overhead in food” has been responsible for the lag.

But that, he says, is changing.

“With labor costs going up that is starting to level out some, and the ‘need’ is now starting to come to the forefront when budgets are being compiled and reviewed.”

It’s a need Masters Gallery Foods is meeting head-on.

“We are always pushing our vendors for the latest and greatest technology upgrades…I’d say 75 percent of our equipment has been modified by our internal groups to fit our specific needs with 10-ish percent being custom made in house to fill a void we couldn’t get done anywhere else. Or, we just had a good idea that we wanted to develop in house,” Wirtz says. “This is one-off stuff that is totally custom utilizing the latest safety and general technology available.  If it ‘can’t’ be done, that just motivates us more!”

The Challenges

As essential as automation has become, adapting to the changing landscape has not come without challenges. Finding and training employees tops the list of hurdles these experts says they’ve faced and continue to tackle.

As Mortensen explains, “The end goal in implementing many of these processes is to reduce the amount of manual labor that is utilized in our production processes.” However, to effectively implement automation, companies need more highly trained and tech savvy operators. “It is a challenge in the current labor market to find and retain this caliber of people,” he notes.

“When new automation technology is discussed it is natural to have some uneasy feelings. Employees may be reluctant for fear of being replaced and not needed when new automation technology is introduced,” Larsen says. But while it’s a tough task, finding personnel with the skills necessary to maintain and troubleshoot automation equipment is more important than ever, Larsen stresses.

The Solutions

Overcoming those obstacles is key to reaping the benefits automation brings. Gossner Foods, Masters Gallery Foods and Lower Foods are among myriad protein processors embracing automation advances today.

“We have found the best solution is to involve as many people in the process as possible—making sure everyone is aware of the benefits new automation can bring,” Larsen says. “This approach has helped reduce the fear that automation replaces jobs. As automation is introduced, employees have seen opportunities to increase skills by moving from heavy physical labor to positions that require oversight, maintenance and troubleshooting of automation equipment.”

Wirtz says Masters Gallery constantly develops internal training regimens and on-the-job training programs for employees. 

“For some specialized machinery, we send folks to the OEM for training, but we struggle to get the benefit for the dollar spent in those scenarios because we are growing so fast and employees are moving around so much,” Wirtz reports. Solutions to those problems are coming from OEMs like Weber, Inc., the world’s leading manufacturer of high-speed slicing technology. “Weber also offering a new training and support program for users of their machinery. We plan to utilize this better in the future as we get our employees settled in a bit.”

Photo courtesy of Masters Gallery Foods

Mortensen, too, cites advanced employee training programs as key.

“We have worked more extensively with vendors to have our people trained on their specific equipment,” he adds. “And we have worked to keep an atmosphere where employees can ask questions and contribute their ideas to make us more successful… We have tried to embrace the changes and advancements we are making and have the hope that being more advanced will help us to attract more of the millennial generation to join our company.”

The Results

Automating processes is clearly a time-consuming task accompanied by a steep learning curve. But those on the front lines say the results make it all worthwhile.

“If you find a way to produce a great product, the key is to repeat that process time after time with the fewest variables as possible. Automation can help in this process,” says Larsen, who adds that “continued automation in cheese manufacturing” is helping maximize yields, improve consistency and lighten the physical demand required of employees.

“Real time access to critical information has improved reaction time to and awareness of systems needing attention. We have seen automation improve our cheese aging process and we have implemented significant advancements in cheese packaging,” Larsen adds. “Automation is key to achieving our continued improvement process goals. As we implement automation processes, we have been committed to maintaining a great working environment to the employees who have been so loyal to the company.”

Wirtz and Mortensen concur.

“Automation helps in the fact that personnel are physically touching the product less. Any time we can take the human variable out of the equation, the quality and efficiency usually go up, aside from food safety interactions that is,” Wirtz says. “It could be something as simple as bumping a bag out of alignment or something as small as that on a conveyor line—it all has a factor on the line’s throughput. If we can better utilize our employees for a more value-added application, that is where we always want to go and that is where the automation helps the most.”

Adds Mortensen: “The implementation of these processes has helped us to produce high-quality products in a more efficient and consistent manner. When we utilize technology to limit the amount of handling that is needed to package our high-quality products, which are often more delicate than more highly processed products, there is a direct increase in product quality and presentation.”

The Weber Connection

Wherever and whenever protein processors encounter automation challenges, there you’ll find Weber, these industry pros say.

“Weber has played a beneficial role in Gossner Foods continued process improvement goals. As we evaluate automation equipment, we need a company to stand behind the promises that are made when the project is proposed,” Larsen says. “Weber has provided ongoing support of new automation projects. An automation project is not deemed successful until it has met the conditions outlined in the performance agreement. Weber’s commitment to our satisfaction has been outstanding.”

Wirtz says Weber personnel were available early on in the development of Masters Gallery Foods’ latest lines, most notably during discussions about design.

“We shared a lot of our run experiences and also some equipment suggestions,” Wirtz recalls. “We were pleased to see that they used a lot of our ideas and also incorporated some features that we hadn’t thought of, further increasing the line’s utilization.”

And Mortensen says partnering with Weber has facilitated many improvements at Lower Foods. “Some have been as simple as improved blade technology that drastically improved the slicing of delicate products, or a conveyor to more efficiently remove end cuts from the slicer which increase uptime by keeping the slicer in operation,” he explains. “Others, such as scanning and auto-loading, have been more complex, but in the long run also provide a higher payback.”

Weber has also worked closely with Lower Foods to train supervisors and operators in the use of these processes and has committed to continue this training into the future.

“This kind of partnership has helped us, as a family-owned company, to more effectively compete in an industry that continues to consolidate and where a great amount of the market share is held by large vertically integrated corporate businesses,” Mortensen says. “We value this partnership and hope to continue it well into the future.”

Whatever that future holds, the only sure thing is that automation will never remain static. The only constant is change.

Weber X-ray Scanner CPS-X 400 is specifically designed for weight-accurate slicing of specialty products like Swiss Cheese and those which vary in density, e.g. fat to lean ratio.

Weber Compact SmartLoader is a fully automatic side loading system for single products or individual portions. Its features and capacity are optimized for sliced products.

“Advancements in plant automation are happening at a rapid pace,” Larsen says. “I have no doubt the technology we are using today will be replaced with automation technology that is far superior as time goes by.”

And yet, it will always be people who provide the oversight necessary to ensure automation is validated and checked to make sure the process is working as intended, Larsen stresses.

“A slight change in a program or other factor can lead to unintended consequences. Automation is great to repeat the same process over and over, but if the process is off by just a little bit we rely on great employees to see the variance and make the correction,” he concludes. “For us there really needs to be that perfect blend of automation to help reduce physical labor requirements, increase efficiency, performance and quality but also dedicated employees who understand automation and how to keep it headed in the right direction.”

Lower Foods Shares Automation Updates

In the past few years, Lower Foods, Inc. in Richmond, Utah (makers of Double L Ranch Meats), has implemented several new automation processes.

According to plant manager Michael Mortensen, the company now auto-loads sliced products into finished packaging on multiple lines, utilizes scanning for whole muscle deli meats, and has updated some printing and marking technologies used on that packaging.

“We have also implemented spray at the slicer technology to apply post lethality treatments to our sliced deli meats to enhance the safety of our products in a less destructive and more efficient manner than HPP or other alternatives,” Mortensen reports.

A production efficiency monitoring system that gives the company increased visibility of its equipment utilization is another upgrade.

“This is extremely important because it gives us a measure of how effective our investments are in real time production, and allows us to better plan for future investments, and constant improvements,” Mortensen says.

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