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“Tech adoption in F&B will require collaborative effort”
Monday, 24 April, 2023, 08 : 00 AM [IST]
The adoption of automation and robotics is significant in the food and beverage sector to improve efficiency and increase throughput. Globally, many developed countries are facing an increasing demand for packaged foods but are also facing a shortage of labour. Automation is the only way forward for such companies as they are struggling to expand to meet the growing demand, said Mahesh Wagle, co-founder and CEO, Cybernetik, in an email interaction with Nandita Vijay. Excerpts:

How do you view the landscape of India’s food and beverage space in the area of automation and deployment of robotics?
Over the past few years, there has been a noteworthy surge in the use of automation and robotics in India's food and beverage industry. This trend has been fueled by various factors such as the need for improved efficiency, enhanced food safety, and consistency in quality and output. One of the areas where robotics is being deployed is in food processing and packaging. Robotics has made it possible to automate various processes involved in food processing, such as handling, sorting, grading, and packaging. This has resulted in increased efficiency and consistency in the quality of the final product. Although the integration of automation and robotics in the food and beverage sector is still in its early stages, it is expected to expand quickly in the future. As technology becomes more accessible and cost-effective, more businesses are likely to adopt automation and robotics as a means of staying competitive in the market.

What are the visible trends you see in the area of tech adoption?
The adoption of automation and robotics is significant in the food and beverage sector to improve efficiency and increase throughput. Data analytics and AI are being increasingly used to improve customer insights, optimise operations, and personalise the customer experience. Businesses are investing in technologies such as predictive analytics, machine learning, and chatbots to drive innovation and growth. Artificial intelligence (AI) can streamline production processes and enhance product quality, while blockchain technology can bolster transparency and accountability throughout the supply chain. By eliminating intermediaries, blockchain can bolster the efficiency of processors.

Sustainability is becoming another important consideration in the sector as businesses are investing in technologies to reduce waste, improve energy efficiency, and support sustainable sourcing and production practices. Technologies such as IoT sensors, blockchain, and AI are being used to track and manage supply chains and reduce waste.

How popular is robotics in food and beverage manufacturing in India and globally?
In 2020, the global collaborative robots market size in the food and beverage industry was valued at US$166.5 million and is projected to reach US$265.4 million by 2025, growing at a CAGR of 9.8% during the forecast period. According to a report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI), the market for food processing machinery in India is expected to grow at a CAGR of 14.6% from 2020 to 2025. The report states that automation and robotics can help address the challenges of low productivity, poor hygiene, and food safety concerns, which are prevalent in the industry.

Additionally, the adoption of robots in food processing is not limited to large food manufacturers. Small- and medium-sized enterprises are also increasingly adopting robotics to enhance their production capabilities.

Globally, many developed countries are facing an increasing demand for packaged foods but are also facing a shortage of labour. Automation is the only way forward for such companies as they are struggling to expand to meet the growing demand.

What are the challenges you see in terms of tech adoption in this sector?
Despite the potential benefits of improving efficiency and productivity, there are several challenges to technology adoption in the food and beverage sector in India. The capital expenditure of implementing new technologies and upgrading existing ones can be a significant barrier, especially for small- and medium-sized enterprises. Additionally, many parts of India still lack basic infrastructure, like stable power supply and high-speed internet, which are essential for many technology solutions. There is also a need to educate and create awareness among business owners and managers about the benefits of technology adoption, as well as how to effectively integrate new technologies into their operations. According to a report by Oracle, 40% of food and beverage companies struggle with integrating new technologies with their existing systems. Integrating new technologies with existing systems and processes can be a challenge, and regulatory and compliance issues can arise. Finally, a skilled workforce is necessary to operate and maintain new technologies, and there is a shortage of skilled workers in the food and beverage sector in India. Addressing the challenges of tech adoption in the food and beverage sector will require a collaborative effort between technology providers, industry associations, and businesses.

How does your company view the opportunities in the food and beverage space?
Positively challenging with ample scope for innovation! Lifestyles, tastes, and disposable incomes of end-users are transforming rapidly. This has triggered an expansion and evolution of the food and beverage sector. Companies in the sector are now more open to automation than before as the Covid-19 pandemic demonstrated how automation facilitates operational continuity.

While the changing scenario creates many opportunities for producers to try innovative recipes and processing techniques, it also brings in its own set of challenges. Currently, there are many solutions available for the standard set of food & beverage products. But there is a growing trend of innovative and improved food products that are being consumed. These products do not have any ready automation solutions, and that poses a huge opportunity for Cybernetik, as we specialise in customised automation.

Are much of the customers in this space large and medium size?
Given that medium and large companies typically have higher production volumes and require more sophisticated and scalable solutions to optimise their operations, the food and beverage process automation space tends to attract more of these companies. According to a report by MarketsandMarkets, the global food automation market size is projected to grow from US$8.9 billion in 2020 to US$14.3 billion by 2025, at a CAGR of 8.0% during the forecast period. The report also notes that the increasing demand for processed and packaged foods, along with the need for higher productivity, is driving the growth of the food automation market.

However, there are also smaller businesses that may benefit from process automation in the food and beverage industry, especially if they are looking to scale up their production.  As the industry continues to grow, we can expect to see more SMEs in this sector adopting technology into their operations.

How receptive are the MSMEs (micro small and medium enterprises) to automation?
The MSME sector has immense potential for growth and automation can play a crucial role in achieving this. With advancements in technology and the increasing availability of affordable and user-friendly automation solutions, more and more MSMEs are beginning to realise the benefits of automation. In fact, a report by Global Market Insights notes that the adoption of automation solutions among MSMEs is expected to grow significantly in the coming years, driven by factors such as rising labour costs and the need for improved quality and efficiency.

Additionally, governments globally are promoting the adoption of automation among MSMEs through various incentives and initiatives, such as tax credits, subsidies, and training programmes. Overall, while the level of receptivity among MSMEs may vary, the trend towards automation is expected to continue to grow in the coming years.

Which are the companies you have supported and what is the outcome?
Tasty Bite, Chitale, Desai Brothers, Mondelez, Hershey’s, and MTR are among the notable food companies we have supported via customised, GMP-compliant automation. The results include substantial improvements in productivity, quality and its consistency, food safety, plant hygiene, space utilisation, and efficiency.

Cybernetik developed a Ready to Eat / Heat (RTE/H) industrial cooking line that automates operations from raw material loading to final palletising. Recipe Management System ensures consistent quality and eliminates the scope for human errors. The line retains nutrients and flavours even while cooking rapidly. It minimises human presence, thereby boosting food safety by cutting down bacterial load. The RTE/H line comes with an inbuilt CIP System for complete sanitisation with minimal water use.  

For one manufacturer, we developed a completely customised automation system that improves all the aforementioned deliverables for their snack as well as sweet product. For another brand, we touched the final frontier of automation – imparting hand-made taste to a machine-made snack food.

For chocolate manufacturers, we built an Auto Distributed System (ADS). A completely automatic line, it handles the primary, secondary, and tertiary packaging of chocolates.

The company seems to have handled international projects too. So how have these been able to help the company convince Indian companies to go in for automation?
The best thing about successfully executing international projects is that it inspires confidence in your potential clients by demonstrating that you are capable of complying with stringent international standards. This is important since many Indian food and beverage manufacturers are exporters.

Next, because international projects usually involve near-complete automation, which is more sustainable as compared to piecemeal automation, we are able to better explain the merits of an automated ecosystem to our potential clients.

Food and beverage companies were even otherwise interested in automation because of the great many benefits it offers. The pandemic and the consequent lockdown brought home the fact that automation enables operational continuity even with minimal workforce.

What kind of training needs to be imparted for the industry to use this technology?
Offering sufficient and high-quality training is crucial to ensure that automation technology doesn't replace human workers but rather equips them with the necessary skills to transition alongside evolving technology. To accomplish this, it's imperative that human capital engaged in the automation industry receives the education and training required to perform their roles effectively. Investing significantly in education programmes and training centers is therefore necessary to keep employees up-to-date with the latest and best practices available to them.

How does the company look at the F&B sector in this revenue growth pathway?
We look at the F&B sector as positively challenging with ample scope for innovation. Maximize Market Research estimates the food & beverage industry in India to grow at an astounding 11.05% CAGR between 2022 and 2027, and be worth $504.92 billion. Driving this sustainable growth are strong fundamentals viz. changing dietary preferences particularly of young people, rising disposable incomes, policy support, increased urbanisation, and improved awareness on the benefits of healthy organic food. With young people making up a large chunk of the Indian population, the scope for innovation in food and beverages is considerable given the tendency of this section to try new things.

Innovation is an integral part of Cybernetik’s DNA, and we have an impeccable track record in delivering customised automation that strikes a balance between innovation on one hand and standards compliance, productivity, and quality consistency on the other. This way, food and beverage manufacturers can innovate with a free mind.

What are the likely future efforts in this sector going forward?
Food industry is poised for automation as more small and medium enterprises adopt robotics to enhance operational efficiencies. The integration of advanced technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML), and Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) is expected to play a pivotal role in the automation process. There is also a growing trend towards smart manufacturing, which involves the use of data-driven insights to optimise production processes, reduce waste, and enhance overall efficiency. Consequently, the food and beverages industry is set to achieve scalability, improved efficiency, enhanced productivity, and higher quality standards.
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