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Automation in food processing: more intelligent production of small portions



Editor’s Note:

In a departure from our usual editorial content, MDM is pleased to present insights into current European consumer and manufacturing trends that portend forthcoming shifts in North America demand and food supply. Satisfying the growing consumer desires for smaller, more frequently acquired portions may soon be affecting our readers, be they processors or food service providers.  We hope you enjoy this brief look into Industry 4.0 and how this move toward more automated meat and cheese production may soon be helping your business to meet these challenges.  

Over 50 years ago, a major retailer opened their doors with the slogan "Want more for less," tapping into the universal consumer desire to discover and enjoy extra value from every purchase. Today, the “more for less” quest remains current in most product categories and is dramatically evident in the habits of European food shoppers.


In stores and restaurants alike, consumers throughout Europe are demanding more value for their money: more quality, more freshness and, especially, more variety. Note the distinction between value and price. Today’s European food shoppers seem willing to pay a premium for superior taste, regional specialties and seasonal products.


To cope with these trends, established European retailers and those who supply them with fresh products are currently in a phase of re-invention. Significantly smaller packaging units have become the norm and a broad selection of mixed trays and variety packs are also now being offered.

These smaller and mixed product packages must, of course, remain affordable. This shift in the demand/supply equation is presenting the food processing industry with completely new production challenges.


Here’s where Industry 4.0 begins to come into play.


First, a brief definition: Industry 4.0 describes the automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies. It creates what has been called a "smart factory". Utilizing cyber-physical systems, the Internet of thingscloud computing, Industry 4.0 and cognitive computing, production processes can be made more efficient and less labor intensive.

Within the modular structured smart factories, cyber-physical systems monitor physical processes, create a virtual copy of the physical world and make decentralized decisions. Over the Internet of Things, cyber-physical systems communicate and cooperate with each other and with humans in real time, and via the Internet of Services, both internal and cross-organizational services are offered and used by participants of the value chain.


With those advantages of smart-factory automation taking shape or already in place, the future in Europe (and soon the America’s, too?) lies in smaller packages and mixed product ranges. Today, rather than reaching for extra large portions of sliced sausage and cheese, Europeans are choosing more varied and especially smaller product volumes that satisfy their tastes, as well as their economic constraints.


The role of automation in meeting this economic challenge is becoming ever more important in food processing. High-performance single machines remain the first choice for slicing and packaging sausage, cheese or deli meats, but the production of variety packages demands efficient automation systems that combine material handling systems with slicers and packaging technology. This is the optimal way of producing price-competitive product ranges in the most hygienic, space-saving and economically viable manner.

One technology that is answering the call for automation is an intelligent shuttle system that is elevating food processing automation to a completely new level. The concept is based on a transport track that moves portion carriers between smartly planned loading and unloading stations.


These new systems are able to buffer the portion carriers before each station to bridge breaks needed for loading. Multiple slicers can be connected. Then, the shuttle loader at the transfer point of each connected slicer can accept and convey sliced portions to any desired output point. The portion carriers can be loaded manually or automatically depending on the system design. If needed, a food robot can pass the portions to a packing machine, such as a thermoforming packaging machine or a tray sealer.


The advantages of this smart automation are obvious, especially when used when used in large-scale food processing applications. The shuttle system provides for compact construction of the entire production line and allows flexible utilization of the existing space. The system does not require long, straight conveyor paths, allowing tracks to be routed around concrete pillars or 90° bends. Multiple systems can be connected via switches – and existing systems can be retro-fit.

The “smart factory” in practice

The ultimate goal is to suit the taste of the customer with exactly the weight specified on the packaging. The customers cannot be expected to accept a smaller amount of product than legal tolerances allow, but overweight portions reduce the profit margin. In the light of fixed-weight packaging in the food retail industry, the fine line between profit and customer obligations can only be reliably managed through finely tuned automation technology.


How then can processors address the special challenges presented by irregularly shaped natural products such as bacon, raw ham or cheese with large holes? Further complicating the solution is the consumer’s desire for variety packs. How can we economically slice inhomogeneous products of different types to produce mixed sliced portions to a fixed weight? The answer to this question lies in automation and especially in the networking of machines, production control systems and the ERP level– a methodology known in Europe as Industry 4.0.

The “smart factory” in practice

Automation and giveaway

Weber Scanning technology is an integral part of processing automation, ensuring the accuracy and consistency of individual portions. Among other functions, this technology can be used to reduce product giveaway and determine the fat/lean ratios of individual products being sliced.
Learn more.

The new, intelligent shuttle system produced by Weber GmbH utilizes  flexible transport tracks to efficiently move sliced portions around corners and to smartly planned loading stations, saving time and labor costs.

Work with each other instead of just next to each other

There is more to building new levels of plant efficiency, of course, than just product transport. Industry 4.0 levels of automation are only possible when different sensors, weighers, material flow computers, conveyors, robots and slicers collaborate simultaneously instead of one after the other.


Automated processing begins with exact acquisition of the 3D contour and weight of the product to be sliced. Companies like Weber offer different systems for this, depending on the required degree of accuracy – from optic weighers using LED scanners to X-ray scanners with the capability to detect product density defects as well as holes in Swiss Cheese. Both of these technologies allow single and multi-track product infeed. The main difference is that the LED initially assumes a constant product density in order to calculate the required slice thickness, and thus the necessary feed rate of the infeed unit. Put simply: the scanner calculates the required thickness of each slice in order to achieve the specified portion weight.

The X-ray scanner measures the true density distribution within a product track and provides exact data on the percentage of product in relation to defects or holes over the entire cross-section – separately for each track. These measurements provide the most reliable basis for highly accurate slicing. An auxiliary advantage is that the customer receives an excellent tool for detecting foreign bodies such as glass, ceramic, stone or metal particles.

Comprehensive utilization of all data

Today’s efficient food robotics control portion transfer precisely, hygienically and automatically. Sophisticated, integrated cameras can instantly recognize and correct the position of each portion for efficient inflow  almost any packaging machine. Learn more.

Although the contour and tissue analysis initially provides a data record for producing slices of exactly the correct weight, this information can also be used for process analysis and quality validation of the processed food.

The human at the machine remains in focus

As Industry 4.0 moves from Europe to North America, it’s worth contemplating the role that must be played by the humans, who must operate increasingly higher-performance technology. How should we deal with new automation systems that initially seem highly complex?


User-friendliness counts. The fundamental philosophy is to design machines for optimum control by humans. The machine operator should be able to concentrate on controlling the process and be supplied with continuous knowledge of the most important production characteristics. Complex

processes should run in the background.  Solutions to processing problems should be intuitive operated and production personnel should be spared challenging programming or tedious parameterisation issues.


Usability counts, too – especially in the networked world of Industry 4.0. This topic is gaining even more momentum in the light of´ the trend towards faster product changes, which used to incur costly rigging times. Software-supported product changes are now possible at the push of a button – a necessity that pays off due to the fact that semi-skilled personnel often operate these machines.

Safe human-machine interface

Semi-skilled instead of intensive technical training: this far-reaching occupational trend also has major consequences for the development, design and engineering of high-performance food processing machinery.

The goal of automation a decade ago was limited to the acceleration of existing production processes and the reduction of unproductive changeover times. Today the focus has expanded to include machine safety and, especially, all human-machine interfaces. Now, the goal is to allow easy and intuitive control of complex technology.

The award-winning Weber Power Control system is designed to more easily automate machine operation. In addition to offering direction in multiple languages, it can  often be controlled via hand gestures as simple as those used on a smart phone or tablet. Learn more.

The WPC interface allows operators to control the slicer through gestures similar to those needed on most smart phones and tablets. Slicer operation via WPC is thus familiar and easy to learn. The user interface is intuitive and has a clearly organized structure without a deep submenu tree. It requires significantly less training time.


In addition, the text elements are enriched with easily comprehensible graphics. Animated video sequences are used to guide the operator. This reduces operating errors caused by language barriers. Operators can be provided on-screen, real time production data and make timely adjustments to ensure proper portioning, reduced giveaway, and control portion counts.

Weber GmbH, the German designer of high-performance slicers was the world’s first manufacturer to introduce the concept of web-based user interfaces in slicer lines, using their proprietary Weber Power Control (WPC) system. Weber has received the renowned Red Dot Award in the category "Communication Design" and the Industry Forum Design Award for this trend-setting operating concept.


While consumers are still demanding “more for less,” their definition of “more” continues to evolve. More convenience, smaller packages, greater selection and higher quality are all in demand. Retailers and supermarket chains are accelerating these trends by constantly bringing new products onto the market to bind customers and exploit further market potentials.


To meet those demands, on both sides of the pond, processors and foodservice outlets are continuing to develop more automated methods of assuring fixed weights, product quality, food safety and resource efficiency. Industry 4.0 holds promise to help with all of these variables.


In the near future, processes like slicing are likely to become highly automated, more flexible and use intelligent networking to make significant contribution to economic viability. We can’t wait to see where all of this leads us.

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