Under pressure from escalating production costs, food manufacturers are looking for ways to mitigate the global rise in inflation. Rob Rogers, senior advisor for Food Safety & Regulation of Mettler-Toledo outlines 10 ways that can help manufacturers beat cost increases as well as improving other aspects of their performance.
Every food manufacturer in the world has had to contend with rising costs for raw materials and energy during 2022, with supply chain and transportation problems added to volatility in energy, food and commodity prices.
Market research organization, Euromonitor International, has predicted that global inflation will reach 7.9% in 2022 and forecasts a lower but still significant 5% in 20231. To put these figures into some perspective, the average annual global inflation rate in the period 2001 to 2019 was 3.8%.
It is therefore more important than ever that food manufacturers keep a tight rein on manufacturing costs and find ways to reduce them if possible. What are their options though? Shopping around for cheaper energy or raw material deals may be difficult, especially if a manufacturer is already committed to a contract. They might look to alter product sizes or formats in the search for savings, but this presents its own challenges. Ideally, food manufacturers need a solution that helps them battle rising costs while also improving production efficiency and compliance.
The answer comes in product inspection – an area in which most manufacturers may have already invested, but they may not yet be operating these systems to their maximum advantage. Whether new investments are needed, or simply a new appreciation of the capabilities of existing machines, there are many ways that product inspection technologies such as x-ray, metal detection, checkweighing and vision inspection can help food manufacturers reduce costs and operate more productively and profitably. Here are ten of these:
#1 Tackle product giveaway
Product giveaway can be a hugely expensive hidden cost for food manufacturers – just a small overfill can add significant wasted resources when multiplied across many thousands of individual products. When manufacturers deliberately overfill to avoid the dangers of fines and brand damage resulting from underfilling, they are giving away not just product but profitability. Consistent fill level control is therefore critical. Checkweighing is the most effective and precise inspection technology for reducing product giveaway. The latest load cells within a checkweigher provide precision measurements, while advanced software links between the checkweigher and filling systems enable manufacturers to set fill levels, monitor them and correct them when needed. This gives them control and minimizes the risk of either overfill or underfill.
X-ray can also play a part in reducing product giveaway, and in several different ways. The greyscale images generated by x-ray inspection allow manufacturers to check that the right number of product components are included in each pack, and that product volume – for example, a stack of potato chips – within the pack comes to the right level. By accurately measuring the mass of the product and its packaging and comparing that measurement to a known correct value, it can also identify discrepancies that would suggest over- or underfill.
#2 Reduce false rejects
Wasted product caused by metal detectors falsely identifying contaminants is a significant issue in some applications. False rejects can be triggered by factors around the operating environment, the product being inspected and/or the metal detector itself. For some applications, the phenomenon of ‘product effect’ is particularly prominent. This occurs where certain characteristics of a product, notably high salt, moisture and temperature variation, trigger a signal that the metal detector interprets incorrectly as a contaminant.
The answer is provided by new generations of metal detectors that offer enhanced detection sensitivity performance, optimized via advanced software algorithms. A particular technological advance has been that of Multi-Simultaneous Frequency (MSF) metal detectors, which operate at more than one frequency simultaneously, enabling them to meet the challenge of product effect in an innovative way. Built-in product signal suppression technology can also help to cancel out the product effect signal, improving the detection of real contaminants, while also reducing false reject rates, and therefore wasted product.
Modern x-ray inspection software reduces false reject rates through automating set-up procedures and establishing optimum detection sensitivity levels. This enables the x-ray system to reject substandard products, as specified by a brand’s requirements. Food manufacturers can be confident that their profits are protected by avoiding unnecessary waste and downtime.
#3 Avoid unnecessary waste (pack and product)
If a manufacturer can carry out inspection of products early in the production process, they can look to avoid incurring unnecessary waste. This is because they can detect a contaminant in a product or ingredient before it reaches added value processes up to and including packaging. Both x-ray and metal detection can play a useful role here, helping to ensure that only good or safe ingredients go forward for completion. The saving made is not just the product itself, but also potentially the packaging materials that are also scrapped when a product is rejected later in the process.
Indeed, vision inspection can also help a manufacturer to reduce this kind of waste but makes its approach from the opposite direction. It can be used to verify product labelling and packaging before the product is inserted into the pack. For example, vision inspection is used to check product codes and labels to reduce the risk of product recalls or retailer fines imposed due to smeared or mis-printed label information.
#4 Test less frequently, without impairing performance
Testing of product inspection equipment is critically important in making sure that the inspection technology is working optimally. It is also unavoidable that system testing incurs some downtime, and an interruption in production, though this can be planned and scheduled. On the flip side, not testing regularly carries the risk of performance degradation, such that unplanned downtime is forced upon the manufacturer while corrective maintenance takes place.
An answer to the problem comes in the form of a Reduced Test Mode that some modern metal detection systems now have. Reduced Test Mode works by constantly monitoring performance to make sure that the metal detector is working to, or better than, the required specification. Armed with this confidence, manufacturers can safely reduce the frequency of scheduled tests, reducing downtime and improving productivity.
#5 Make routine monitoring tests quicker
Alongside the frequency of inspection equipment testing, the duration of each test also has a direct impact on production line downtime, and therefore productivity. With modern product inspection systems, manufacturers can automate testing procedures, thereby cutting the time required for testing with manual processes, and freeing operators to concentrate on other, more value-adding duties.
Automatic testing on metal detectors can reduce the duration of tests for a range of different metal types to less than a minute. It improves repeatability, confirms centre-line performance and optimizes testing for all available metal types, with test data automatically collected and stored. For employees’ safety, it reduces the requirement for them to scale ladders and work at height to conduct performance tests.
#6 Reduce manual record-keeping
Data has become an essential resource for many businesses, and food manufacturers can gain significant production improvements by embracing digitization. This means adopting systems that allow them to automatically collect and store data. Modern product inspection machines generate a constant stream of data, and by bringing this into specialist data management software tools, such as ProdX from Mettler-Toledo, food manufacturers can harness this wealth of information to identify ways to improve production efficiency.
This would be virtually impossible to do with manual record-keeping, since the constant monitoring, gathering and analyzing of such volumes of data would be far too labor-intensive. The additional benefit that food manufacturers gain by digitizing data collection from product inspection systems instead of keeping paper records is that the process of preparing for compliance audits becomes much quicker and easier. The data gathered can be discussed with greater confidence in both their accuracy and completeness. The sustainability benefits associated with going paperless should not be underestimated either.
#7 Lessen the risk of unplanned downtime
Unplanned downtime is a bugbear for any manufacturer, negatively impacting both productivity and profitability. We already saw with metal detection systems how automatic testing and reduced testing through continuous performance monitoring can reduce production downtime. Investing in service provision is another way to reduce expensive downtime, with suppliers offering priority contracts to carry out preventative maintenance and using high-tech solutions such as augmented reality to deliver more effective remote support. Service arrangements can also extend to storing spare parts for equipment on site, so that faults can be swiftly corrected, and downtime minimized.
In many food manufacturing environments, hygiene and cleanliness is also a priority, and closing down production lines to undertake cleaning is another example of how downtime interrupts manufacturing. While this often happens during job changeovers, and is therefore not really unplanned, there might be accidents and spillages that also cause the cleaning team to get to work. In these circumstances, having product inspection systems that have been designed with hygiene and quick and easy access for cleaning in mind is another advantage for the food manufacturer.
#8 Be more energy efficient
Energy costs will always be a major consideration for food manufacturers, and recent world events have put this issue under much greater scrutiny. There is a simple message here – when investing in new product inspection technology, the energy efficiency of the system should be one of the top considerations. You can achieve substantial cost savings in this way. For example, there are x-ray systems available that use around a fifth of the energy that alternative systems do. In a manufacturing plant running 300 days per year, a single x-ray machine could use something like 5 kWh less per day, or 1.5MWh per year. A benefit that goes straight on the bottom line.
#9 Increase automation of quality checks instead of manual processes
The replacement of manual processes with automation is a key aspect of digital transformation. In product inspection it can come in many forms, but the main aim is to improve productivity and therefore profitability. One example is x-ray inspection, which enables manufacturers to perform multiple quality checks using one technology. They can check for missing components, seal integrity, mass measurement and fill level, helping to minimize the risk of recalls, and enable re-working of products before further value is added.
Another option is replacing a static scale used for manual spot checks with a dynamic checkweigher, enabling 100% of products to be checked in-line, reducing manual interventions and allowing operators to again be diverted onto more value-added tasks.
Vision inspection is another production line stage where automation shows its worth. Smart camera systems and software processing enable the automatic inspection of labels and packaging at production speeds. This helps manufacturers ensure that serialization codes, allergen and ingredients information and label placement are all present and correct. This would be deeply labour-intensive, if not impossible, to carry out manually, and benefits the manufacturer in many other ways, including food safety compliance.
The advantages of combination product inspection systems include the ability to automate multiple inspection process within one machine, a single factory-line footprint, and one training requirement delivered by a single provider. Most often, such combination systems pair checkweighing with x-ray or with metal detection, but triple combination systems that include vision inspection are also becoming more commonplace.
#10 Explore greater efficiencies in product changeovers
Combination systems can also benefit food manufacturers in terms of reducing the time required for product changeovers. The changeover can be set in motion for more than one inspection process through a single user interface, and different product profiles can be saved in the system for easy recall. Just a few clicks can set the operation in motion.
With metal detection systems, an innovation called ‘product clustering’ also helps reduce the frequency of changeovers. This allows similar products to be grouped for inspection on a single setting, removing the need in many instances for manual job set-up. As well as reducing downtime, product clustering also reduces the risk of human error, because fewer human interventions are required to change between jobs.
As we have seen, product inspection delivers many different possibilities for food manufacturers to reduce their costs. There is an additional dimension to consider here though – many of the factors listed above can have an impact beyond simple cost reduction; they can also benefit other aspects of manufacturing operation such as production efficiency, product quality, compliance, and supply chain transparency. Therefore, the aim of beating inflation can also improve almost every aspect of food manufacturing best practice – something that every food manufacturer should keep in mind.