Because food plants are under immense pressure to find and retain skilled labor to perform sanitation and cleaning, technology that can automate tedious cleaning processes is the future of food processing. With that in mind, expect to see more food manufacturers automating their sanitation processes as a solution to today’s tight labor market and ensuring the safety and cleanliness of their facilities and products.
If you haven’t considered automating your cleaning and sanitation processes, there’s no better time than now. Automation can help you tackle concerns such as: a shortage of skilled labor, rising costs of doing business, a growing population with a growing demand for food, a need to reduce water use and avoiding public health outbreaks. Most facilities see a return on their investment in sanitation equipment within a year to 18 months.
Though automating your facility’s sanitation may seem daunting, here’s some important advice for devising a strategy that helps you identify the right steps to take from the beginning.
1. Conduct A Sanitation Evaluation
You won’t be able to develop a road map towards implementing automated solutions until you identify where you are and where you need to go. That’s why you must start by assessing your current sanitation practices.
You’ll need to get a gauge on the resources being used: people, chemistry, water usage and time. How safe is your plant during sanitation? How efficient is the crew carrying out regular procedures? Are there areas where you could be saving time and resources?
It can be extremely valuable to get an outside expert’s opinion on sanitation processes in your plant. A consultant who specializes in this area can conduct a thorough evaluation, often spending several days observing procedures and monitoring staff while noting areas for improvement. Then, the best solutions for automating cleaning and sanitation will emerge.
2. Identify Hot Spots
There is always room for improvement when it comes to food safety. An expert consultant will frequently identify “hot spots” in your plant. These are the areas where the risk of contaminations is highest.
Harborage areas for bacteria and places where pests may arise require extra attention during sanitation. Perhaps the most important benefit of automating the sanitation process is how it creates a repeatable and reliable process. A piece of equipment does the job the same way every time. It doesn’t get fatigued or distracted, so the quality of work is consistent. With automated processes, you’ll have more confidence that hot spots are being effectively cleaned.
While you’ll always need boots on the ground and human eyes reviewing the work of machines, automation greatly reduces the chance of costly human errors. Identify those hot spots and automate those sanitation processes first.
3. Eliminate Menial Tasks
Sanitation practices are ripe for automation. Sanitation requires specialized skills and typically requires employees to work overnight shifts in potentially dangerous environments. This can make it especially difficult to hire — and retain — the right people. With skilled labor difficult to find, some companies are competing with other business functions — such as manufacturing — for labor.
Since good sanitation help is truly hard to find, you’ll want your existing crew to provide you with as much value as possible. Automated solutions help in this regard because they can be designed to complete many of the most monotonous, basic duties. Look for tasks that are repetitive and require little skill, and automate these processes first.
Spraying down a conveyor is a perfect example. Why make a worker stand over the conveyor with a hose, spraying back and forth for an extended period of time when this work could easily be completed more efficiently with a piece of technology? By automating a menial task such as this, you’ll free up a sanitation worker to do more meaningful work while ensuring the conveyor is cleaned consistently every time.
Cleaning fillers is another tedious job that can take significant time. For example, we recently helped a facility turn the process of sanitizing a piece of filling equipment into a 45-minute job. Previously, it took two workers approximately three hours to do the same task. As a result, savings in chemicals, water and labor will add up quickly.
4. Improve Plant Safety
Certain pieces of equipment and areas of your food processing plant may present worker safety concerns. Keeping people out of harm’s way and avoiding the cost of a workplace injury are also benefits of automating specific sanitation procedures. Automating the cleaning and sanitation of areas that may be considered dangerous for your workers will mitigate worker safety risks.
Two specific places where automation can prove valuable for improving plant safety are spiral freezers and screw conveyors. Spiral freezers force workers to clean in small spaces where there are risks for slips and falls. Screw conveyors present the possibility of getting entangled or entrapped in the equipment during cleaning.
Customized, automated sanitation equipment, however, will not only keep crews away from precarious situations, it can also be designed so that hard-to-reach areas are cleaned effectively every time.
5. Save Valuable Resources
Beyond better management of time and labor, automation can also make your plant use energy, chemicals and water more efficiently. The initial evaluation of sanitation procedures in your facility should reveal opportunities for savings on these resources.
A significant amount of water is used in sanitation, and food processors stand to experience significant savings by reducing water use. Automation accomplishes this by improving the efficiency of rinse cycles and ensuring proper water pressure. While every facility is different, some plants see water savings as high as 50 percent following the implementation of automated solutions.
Reducing water usage also means reducing the amount of energy needed to heat the water for sanitation. Furthermore, less water used for cleaning means less wastewater to treat.
In addition to helping you reduce the use of resources while improving efficiency, automation also provides much better visibility into when, where and how those resources are being used. That includes the chemicals used in sanitation. Automated sanitation equipment allows for custom-blended chemistry and precise application, and it also provides you with the data needed to provide valuable insights and more control.
Ultimately, you gain a clear understanding of the amount of water and chemistry needed and the amount of time it should take to complete sanitation. That means it will be much easier to plan for more uptime.
Find The Right Solutions For Your Facility
There’s no out-of-the box or one-size-fits-all solution to automate the sanitation process. The equipment and chemistry needs to be customized for each facility’s needs after evaluating its products and the potential food safety risks, as well as the design and layout inside the plant.
Automation is not a magic bullet, but it does provide great value. By automating certain tasks, you can improve safety (of your employees and your products), increase efficiency and reduce costs. While there is certainly an up-front cost, you’ll quickly see savings downstream from more efficient use of labor and resources. And, last but not least, improving your food plant’s sanitation and cleaning processes protects both the public from food safety risks and your brand from irreparable damage. You just have to be ready to take that first step.
Bob Ogren is VP, Equipment Division, at Birko