Automation Technology for Food Processing and Manufacture

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Automation Technology for Food Processing and Manufacture

Industrial manufacturing technology is constantly changing. In the 1700's, we first really saw the concept of "specialization of labor" in which an individual specialized in one aspect of an item's production. With the Industrial Revolution the 1800's, people began using machines to do their work for them. Through the 1900's to today, we are seeing electronics make even more sophisticated machines possible. It seems with each new step of technology, industry is becoming more and more automated, completely changing the role people play in production. The average "worker" is nearly extinct, having been replaced by engineers, technicians, and the machines originally created to make their jobs easier.

Automation technology is used in every large scale production industry. I chose to learn about automation technology with regards to food processing in particular because it is a field I am familiar with, and it will continue to exist and evolve as long as people and animals need to eat.


Large scale food production is more involved than one may think. The following are illustrations of a generalized food processing plant, such as one used to make cereal:

Food Process
Packaging Process

These processes are automated using technology created by companies such as Rockwell, Siemens, and Texas Instruments. For the sake of example, I will talk about Rockwell, because it tends to be the leader in the industry.

The Technology

PLC's (Programmable Logic Controls)

- actual sensor inputs are called tags

. speed sensors
. counters
. thermocouples
. photo sensors
. scales
. density sensors
. on/off switches

. anything that can measure the change of the state of something

- each sensor is connected by hardwire to the PLC

- PLC's are connected by Ethernet to a central hub, making data available to all
stations on the network

- form elaborate logic trees

- offers near infinite flexibility

HMI's (Human-Machine Interface)

. the mechanism which allows people to monitor and control the machines
. literally a computer console with a display screen
. monitored by technicians and machine operators
. can be programmed with alarms
. simple graphics and animation

Who makes the technology work?

The equipment and software is purchased from a company such as Rockwell, but it is up to the manufacturer to decide how they want to use it. Generally, the manufacturing company contracts trained electrical engineers to design a system which will meet their needs. It can take months or even years to program the automation of an assembly line, and is overseen by a company's Engineering and Information Technology departments.


The programming software is usually more expensive than the actual equipment. The software itself costs about $5,000 - $6,000, plus a yearly cost of 25% of that for support-per PC.

Contracted Engineers to program the equipment cost the company $150-200/hr or more depending on experience and job complexity.

Research Application

Example: I used a similar kind of monitoring system to do research when I worked in the Process Technology Research and Development Department of Gallo Winery for a summer.

Man vs. Machine

Highly automated machines' advantages generally outweigh that of using people in assembly line fashion. While many people feel there is nothing like the human touch, industry is really motivated by cost. Believe it or not, but in the long run $200/hr consultant programmers and high tech equipment are less costly than lots of $7/hr laborers. Electronic controls are especially valuable in the handling food, because of the health consequences poor handling can pose. Also, machines can work faster and for longer periods of time than human workers can and with much more consistency. All of this results in higher and guarantee able quality of goods.

While technicians do monitor what the product lines are doing, sometimes errors are made and go undetected for quite awhile, producing flawed materials. Food producers such as Kraft Foods, Inc. will not put damaged goods on the market, but they do not let it go to waste either. If it is a cosmetic defect such as the wrong promotional information on the outside of the box, or pieces of cereal cut into odd shapes, the company donates the food to local food banks. If the flaw makes it substandard for human consumption, like if a timer was off and the product was overcooked, it is usually sold for animal feed. Rarely, but if the loss of product is too great, and only due to a cosmetic/packaging defect-such as if it was only a limited run, the product is "reworked." In this case low level workers are used to manually repackage the material.

The use of automation is slightly different in Lesser Developed Countries, or places where labor is much less expensive than the U.S. In Mexico, for example, where the economy is poor, the government encourages businesses to use manpower as opposed to full automation where possible. Companies with production lines in Mexico such as Nabisco can do this, as a labor is so cheap. Mexico actually has a lower unemployment rate than Canada or the U.S. The difference is that Mexico has no unemployment insurance, so people cannot afford to be unemployed and consequently work for very little wages. (Commission)

Societal Impact

Every new step in technology changes society in some way. Automation in food processing holds food handling to higher standards, and thusly a better quality of food for our nation to eat. However, its impact on the nation's workforce isn't so clearly positive.

Automation technology in industry has played a major role in shifting in the shape of the country's workforce. It used to be that one could make a very nice living and support a family with only a high school diploma. Today, opportunities to do well without a college degree or trade certification are very few and far between, the jobs for unskilled, uneducated labor have been replaced by machines or shipped to other countries with cheaper labor. Consequently, more of the workforce is becoming educated.

Joe Coates, a future theorist predicts that within about 10 years, about 70% of the workforce will be able to do all of the work. (Raphael) While this number is debateable, it is clear that the industries in which job availability is growing are those that cannot be replaced by machines. Fields such as teaching, nursing, and child care absolutely require a human mind. The same technologies which make our home lives simpler, are requiring us to get a higher level of education to be a part of the workforce.


Commission for Labor Cooperation. "Unemployment Rate in North America." Accessed December 3, 2002.

Raphael, Todd. "Crystal Gazing and the Future of Work." Workforce, Sep2002, Vol. 81, Issue 9, p112, 1p.

Keefe, Jeffrey H. "Numerically Controlled Machine Tools and Worker Skills." Industrial and Labor Relations Review, Volume 44, Issue 3, Apr. 1991, pp503-519.

Rockwell Automation

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