In conversation: Automation in the FMCG sectorby Grace Kneafsey
Grace Kneafsey, head of Business Development at equipal, spoke to Neil Geeson & David Hume, both of Comau UK about how automation is impacting the FMCG sector.
Fast Moving Consumer Goods. From food to office supplies, medicines and cleaning products, the FMCG sector is broad and varied. An agile industry, always ready to adapt to changes in consumer preferences, the sector has faced rapid and lasting changes during the pandemic.
Whilst pressure on production facilities with staff shortages and the need to implement social distancing measures has not been unique to FMCG, the rapidly increasing demand for products via e-commerce during the last year has meant businesses have been tackling the need for higher & quicker output alongside unprecedented changes to their own manual processes.
I sat down with Neil Geeson & David Hume from Comau UK to discuss where automation fits into the current state of play with FMCG. Not dissimilar to the general feeling around automation in the UK, I heard that the FMCG sector here remains slightly behind Europe and the rest of the world in terms of integrating robotics & automated processes into production facilities. The pandemic, for many, has provided the necessary shock to speed up conversations about automation.
Take a read of our conversation below, covering where FMCG businesses should start with automation & how huge advances in technology, service & training mean that automation can be a smooth process, supporting growth and long-term strategy. ⬇️⬇️
1. Automation & FMCG - the state of play?
So tell me about your current experiences with FMCG businesses?
When we go into FMCG facilities, we notice the sector following a similar path to that we saw with automotive around 15 - 20 years ago.
What we saw then was a lot of labour-intensive roles, and the conversations we were having with engineers were about throughput and quality, and of course cost. We’d do an analysis of where the biggest problems were & have an open conversation about long term strategy.
Perhaps naively (and I think this is because FMCG seems so closely linked to e-commerce) I had assumed there may be high levels of automation already in place, but this isn’t the case?
It is completely varied in FMCG - the level of existing automation. Like you might expect, some of the bigger players have very high levels, whereas the smaller producers have had less capacity to invest. But, even amongst large global companies, it’s surprising how many areas can still be mostly manual.
Food as an example. We see the food processing equipment itself being automated but many companies have not joined any of the processes up.
Supermarkets - even the very big chains - will still have manual processes for getting boxes into vans.
There’s a lot of education to do with the sector about how much automation actually costs, and how / what can be done, having that vision to see what an automated factory can look like.
Like with all automation, initial conversations and consultancy are key.
2. Either end of the line is the place to start.
In FMCG, both ends of the production system where there’s the delivery of the product onto the line, and then off at the end of the line. We might typically use Comau’s Scara robots or our collaborative robots, Aura and Racer-5 Cobot to address these applications and we are increasingly seeing an interest in our advanced vision systems coupled with our artificial neural network. This can be quite standard pieces of automation and are most probably the ‘easiest’ bits to solve. In many ways, introducing solutions here can build up confidence for the business about automation.
In many cases, these are also the areas where companies can achieve the quickest & largest ROIs. Automation is effective, but also these are ergonomically challenging jobs where staff retention is difficult and staff rotation is necessary. Referring back to the previous example about supermarket chains still having manual processes for throwing boxes onto the back of lories. Packaging itself is another big one.
From a safety aspect, introducing automation to these processes can be a huge benefit.
?️ You’ve discussed the need for education in the sector, but also the need for confidence in automation.
Yes, there have been times when there’s been automation for automation’s sake in the sector. And some people have had bad experiences, where they haven’t seen the return on investment. As I said, the starting point can be automation in either end of the line, where there are ‘easy wins’ - fairly standard solutions and clear ROIs. But you need to see it as a staged approach and have a roadmap set out for a business who is automating, understanding their long-term strategy.
Bringing in an automation ‘product’ for one process without considering how it integrates with other processes, for example, can cause more issues than it solves! As always, that consultancy relationship with the customer is so important.
It’s also worth noting the huge advances in technology over recent years - using Artificial Intelligence and the latest robots. Much more is possible now.
3. Disruption can be minimal.
With demand in this sector so high, speed & reliability of output is so important. Does that make businesses worried about implementing automation - the potential disruption?
Modularity is key. The ability to be able to bring automation into an existing facility; get in and out without affecting production. It’s self-contained in effect.
It is possible for modules to be built and tested at Comau premises, for them to be easily transported by lorry and to have 'plug & play' over a weekend.
Scalability is also important. We’re able to implement something that can build 500 units an hour today, but 1000 units a day tomorrow.
I always want to get across to customers the importance of modularity, scalability, and flexibility.
4. Training for every level.
Of course, installation isn’t the only step, what about training and the interaction between existing staff and new processes?
There are various support packages, dependent on the type and level of automation and the experience of the business. If automation really is new to a business, a tailored support package can be in place where it’s our responsibility to keep the line running, so there are permanent Comau people in there.
There’s a lot of flexibility, all the way to customers who really know what they’re doing and need less input. We have a digital approach where we can monitor systems remotely from Comau, operating predictive maintenance. We use virtual reality technology so someone could be at a production facility, receiving instruction and training. We also run training exercises before installation so there’s no extra time required to get used to new equipment.
It’s very flexible and always tailored to customer needs.
5. The future for FMCG
The pandemic has certainly pushed things forward. Perhaps five years worth of progress on considering automation in just one year.
We’re also starting to see the impact of Brexit and businesses reshoring. New production facilities embracing the latest technology.
Automation in manufacturing is moving extremely quickly and there continues to be large-scale and rapid innovation. At Comau, we see this as a huge opportunity for processes to be optimised through the collaboration of humans & machines - we call it HUMANufacturing - putting mankind at the center of a collaborative, safe and synergistic manufacturing environment. You can read more about Comau HUMANufacturing here .
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Comau, a member of Stellantis, is a worldwide leader in delivering advanced industrial automation products and systems.Its portfolio includes technology and systems for electric, hybrid and traditional vehicle manufacturing, industrial robots, collaborative and wearable robotics, autonomous logistics, dedicated machining centers and interconnected digital services and products able to transmit, elaborate and analyze machine and process data.
With over 45 years of experience and a strong presence within every major industrial country, Comau is helping manufacturers of all sizes in almost any industry experience higher quality, increased productivity, faster time-to-market and lower overall costs.The company’s offering also extends to project management and consultancy, as well as maintenance and training for a wide range of industrial segments. Headquartered in Turin, Italy, Comau has an international network of 7 innovation centers, 5 digital hubs, 8 manufacturing plants and employs more than 9,000 people in 14 countries (including Comau UK based in Warwickshire). A global network of distributors and partners allows the company to respond quickly to the needs of customers, no matter where they are located throughout the world. Through the training activities organised by its Academy, Comau is also committed to developing the technical and managerial knowledge necessary for companies to face the challenges and opportunities of Industry 4.0.