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Connectivity will become the norm…not the exception

02 May 2016

The food and beverage supply chain need to embrace the potential of a digitalised and connected world, where technology platforms providing real time intelligent data streams, says Keith Thornhill. This will underpin gains in operating efficiencies, optimised production and manufacturing agility. 

The predicted highly digitalised manufacturing world of Industry 4.0 promises a data-rich interconnected world, where seamless technology platforms will drive efficiencies, promote agile production capability and, ultimately, aid competitiveness. The collection, storage and use of intelligent industrial data is the fundamental component of this new world, as it will provide a transparent, real-time window on current operational effectiveness and support strategic decision-making around future production capacity.

Food and beverage manufacturing enterprises able to use the advantages that intelligent data provides, will find themselves in a stronger position to deal with the challenges of an increasingly competitive local, national and even international marketplace.

The biggest challenge is to seek out levels of improved efficiencies influencing all areas of production and operation.

The effects of driving efficiency improvements to enable leaner and more agile manufacturing can make a compelling argument when it comes to highlighting the business case for technology-based CAPEX investment. But, being able to do so is for many food and beverage manufactures a difficult barrier to overcome. This is a situation that has to change if the sector is to fully realise its true competitive potential.

Data driven efficiencies
There are a number of key production and operational areas that can benefit from the type of networked technology platforms advocated by Industry 4.0.

In the area of condition monitoring and predictive maintenance programmes, real time data from technology that continuously monitors production lines and alerts users to potential problems before they occur, can prevent line stoppages that affect or even halt often tight production schedules. This, in many cases, results in the costly waste of products. Such data streams are available, but they need to be better analysed and used to enhance the long-term efficiency of the line.

Likewise, improved scrutiny of production line performance can enhance efficiency performance. While historically gathered data can play a part in understanding the efficiency levels of a line, it is access to real-time data that is the real game changer. Information gathered at source, and not relying on any external input stage, can provide a powerful source of intelligence and allow production decision-making to be far more relevant and timely.

Transparent and accurate production status can make a real difference when it comes to order fulfilment. With retail orders often placed at short notice, the dilemma of deciding whether the production capability can actually fulfil the request in the timeframe given, can be informed by proper insight as operators have a clear understanding of line capacity.

This is only feasible if the real-time data is extracted and assessed. Scheduling software such as Preactor can deliver such insight for food and beverage manufacturers so that better information is shared between production and operation functions.

The outputs from a better and more joined-up production environment can also be used to inform other elements of the supply chain. So that, for instance, suppliers of raw materials can be alerted to reduce delivery quantities to site to negate the potential for waste, while retailers placing the original order can be informed whether a full or part order will be supplied.

Communication based on evidence provided from intelligent data sources will foster better working and commercial relationships and start to truly integrate the whole supply chain.

It is fair to say that the sector has relied upon a historical tendency to ‘over produce’, when in reality, through the aid of networked data intelligence, it could be far more targeted in what it needs to manufacture and by when. This leads to obvious efficiencies in terms of reduced raw material waste, lower energy consumption and a far healthier sustainable outlook.

While the critical factor of enhanced efficiencies remains a current challenge, it is inextricably linked to the operating goal of improved production flexibility. In a world where consumers (and retailers) are demanding increased levels of product customisation, the ability of the manufacturing component of the supply chain to respond to this is growing in importance.

Ultimate potential
For the ultimate potential of data provision to drive efficiencies and the level of manufacturing flexibility that will be sought in the future, the entire food and beverage sector supply chain has to be far more integrated. While machine builders and technology providers, along with ingredient suppliers can integrate, it will only be when the retail sector joins forces with the other stakeholders that revolutionary change will occur.

Imagine the possibilities of knowing, via a highly visible and interconnected supply chain, that when a product is removed from the shelf for purchase it triggers an information flow back through the supply chain from retailer to the manufacturer and the material supplier. It communicates that as a result of a consumer decision that product will need to be remade, redelivered and restocked. The entire chain is immediately compressed and efficiencies, agility and manufacturing flexibility enhanced.

A willingness on behalf of all parties to embrace the possibilities presented by networked, visual and shared data information sources that sit at the heart of the digitalised industrial world, would reap real rewards for all.

This vision of the future is starting to be understood across the sector and while take-up is currently still at a low level, it is heartening to see progress being made in this vital area for the future success of the sector here in the UK.

Those that are seeing the light are already partnering with the technology and solution providers that can help them bring the vision to life. By doing so, they are stealing a march on their competitors – some of whom will be ultimately left behind as the manufacturing world evolves and connectivity becomes the norm, not the exception.

Keith Thornhill is business manager – Food and Beverage at Siemens UK & Ireland.

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