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Pneumatics joins the smart revolution

19 March 2018

Andy Parker-Bates discusses the technological advances in pneumatics that are helping food processors start their journey towards the smart factory. 

In addition to meeting regulatory requirements, food manufacturers and processors must be able to respond quickly to retailer brand requirements for conformity and customer expectations regarding safety. And if something does go wrong, accurate data about batch numbers and distribution patterns is critical, to enable a swift and thorough recall of any sub-standard product.

Industry 4.0 and the concept of the smart factory has much to offer the food sector. The adoption of more connected production, packaging and labelling technologies offers the potential to improve production efficiencies, reduce costs, and be more receptive to customer demands. So, why does the industry seem reluctant to implement the changes that will deliver these long-term benefits? At one end of the supply chain food manufacturers are waiting for machine builders to offer ‘features’ that will deliver the Industry 4.0 workplace; while machine builders are waiting to be told what features the food processors are actually looking for, before investing in their development.

This impasse needs to be broken – and fast – if the food sector is going to retain its position – both as the UK’s largest manufacturing sector and as a globally competitive provider. The good news is that it does not require investment to build a new facility or replace obsolete equipment to embrace Industry 4.0 principles: it is possible to implement positive change in a modest way and scale up gradually.

Indeed, benefits can be derived by updating existing equipment through the retrofitting of additional sensors and data logging facilities. Simple examples include checkweighers equipped to communicate with filling machines in order to adjust variations in fill levels without stopping production, or an intelligent valve that monitors the air consumption of a machine to better predict and schedule servicing.

Intelligent components?
Intelligent pneumatic components and systems are available today that can deliver both factory automation and process automation in food applications. For example, Festo‘s VZQA pneumatic pinch valve provides hygienic, reliable dispensing of food and offers a N/O variant with a silicone diaphragm that is EU certified for applications involving direct contact with food products. From the same series, the VZXA angle seat valve is able to handle control of media flows.

Meanwhile, the CPX terminal can act as an automation platform, valve terminal partner or remote I/O. It can be used to integrate pneumatic and electrical control chains easily, quickly and seamlessly, as well as providing the open communications and flexibility to meet company-specific standards.

However, Festo’s most recent offering was developed to aid the transition to the smart factory. The VTEM Motion Terminal is an pneumatic automation platform that can be controlled by apps. This means that, for the first time, the functions of a pilot valve can be changed via software – using the same hardware. The VTEM therefore offers the flexibility to respond rapidly to changing customer demands. Because new functions can be added quickly via apps, machine developers can create a basic machine type and then select the relevant apps to equip it with different functions and features in accordance with customer requirements. The apps replace over 50 individual components. Paired with the CPX automation platform the solution offers modular remote I/O, comprehensive fieldbus options, optionally embedded CoDeSys controller and IoT gateway, controller for electric drives with stepper motor and servo controllers and, last but not least, Industry 4.0 pneumatics.

So technology has advanced to the point that the smart factory is not something we need to wait for. The technology is already available to make step changes in automation and because it can be adopted incrementally, it is also affordable. As the UK’s leading manufacturing sector, the food industry should be seizing these opportunities to digitise, automate and improve.

Andy Parker-Bates is product manager in Factory Automation for Festo.

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