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Big data should not be a big problem

19 June 2017

Paul Wilkinson says that even the most modest automation platform can help food companies up the first rungs of the Industry 4.0 ladder, making better use of data to drive up productivity. 

The ongoing discussions about Industry 4.0, the IIoT and big data are leaving many SMEs cold, and may even be detracting from the wider debate about the importance of automation. However, there can be no doubt that Industry 4.0 has been gaining momentum, with most manufacturers, SMEs included, developing a picture of what the smart factory of the future might look like. 

Given that SMEs in the UK food sector account for 96% of businesses, 30% of employment and 24% of turnover, it is vital that enterprises of all sizes recognise that big data isn’t just for the multinational elite organisations. There are scalable options available that fit the needs of every manufacturing plant.

Taking in the wider automation picture, all processes on the plant floor can derive greater value from big data and it can strengthen the overall supply chain strategy, with seamless communications to and from higher level business systems for more tightly integrated production. Upstream and downstream logistics processes and supply chain management forms part of this integrated system, ensuring production is optimised to match customer demand and raw materials supply.

Already, we are beginning to see terabytes of plant floor data being transmitted to Cloud-based servers, with intelligent databases scouring this big data to uncover production trends, maximise throughput and availability, minimise energy usage and eliminate unscheduled downtime. In the ultimate picture, we anticipate seeing the ‘lights out’ factory, completely unmanned, with production lines able to optimise and reconfigure themselves to further boost availability and productivity, while delivering the flexibility for ‘batch size 1’ product delivery.

For the larger, multinational, multi-site food manufacturers, this may be a close reality, and perhaps the bigger picture represents a roadmap for automation. Yet, for most SMEs, the realm of Industry 4.0 and the potential for big data can seem like little more than a pie-in-the-sky fantasy factory. And for SMEs who are still taking their first small steps in automation to replace some previously manual processes, Industry 4.0 can look like a complete irrelevance.

So, when food companies start the journey by first breaking down some simple goals of Industry 4.0, a big one being to improve system connectivity to support better decision making. The first premise is that businesses want to be able to see information from the factory floor within higher-level systems and for the food manufacturing sector this should be nothing new; as soon as a PLC is linked over Ethernet to a PC, production data will start to be pulled into spreadsheets for analysis and production management.

Big data doesn’t necessarily mean more data. Every device connected to the PLC is creating data – from the humblest field component to the most sophisticated variable speed drive. Industry 4.0 is not about creating new information, it is just about making it more accessible. Once you start looking at the data that’s being generated, it is possible to start to interact with your processes in a much more sophisticated way, and control those processes to much finer tolerances. In effect, creating additional knowledge built on the information you already possess.

Not a big problem
Big data, then, doesn’t have to be a big problem. Industry 4.0 doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Even taking baby steps with information, will allow companies to extract more from even the simplest automation systems and quickly move beyond just automating a manual process. Rudimentary data imported into higher-level spreadsheets or displayed on HMIs can highlight productivity weaknesses that SMEs can quickly tighten up. Those same trend charts, without any extra effort, can begin to allow SMEs to predict the performance of their machines, flagging up impending problems on production lines that will enable maintenance to be scheduled. There is nothing more clever than that in achieving preventative maintenance and so helping to maximise plant availability; it’s just making use of the data already being generated.

First steps 
Whatever level of automation you have, however unsophisticated your communications strategy might currently seem, chances are that without knowing it you’ve already taken your first steps on the Industry 4.0 ladder. Big Data is therefore not a new big investment but is simply about building on and utilising the tools and systems already in situ.

A vast array of different factors and processes can all have an impact on productivity. At the simplest levels, it is possible to kick things off by exploring their established automation platforms to optimise productivity. Perhaps it’s using the data logging and graphical display capabilities of an HMI to highlight factors that are limiting a line’s running speed. Or it could be analysing data in a spreadsheet to uncover why fewer products leave the plant on some days than others. Alternatively, it’s logging into the control system from a remote PC or tablet or even a smart phone. By utilising the in-built web server now common in PLCs, HMIs, variable speed drives and more, it is possible to view an alarm generated by the control system to identify and schedule maintenance of a component to minimise machine downtime. 

While it is true that the world of big data can seem daunting, and it is understandable why many food processors may feel indifferent towards Industry 4.0, in today’s contemporary manufacturing environment, it is neither an investment black hole or an automation blind alley. 

Whether it’s product handling, bagging or palletising, the automation journey for the food industry is underway. Reality is, it takes very little to draw on the sophisticated data that every automation system is already generating and to apply these analytical proficiencies to make some very real production improvements. In fact, SMEs rarely have the cumbersome constraints and internal protocols that slow technology adoption in a larger corporation. This means that with scalable options to select from, food processors of all sizes can bang the big data drum.

Paul Wilkinson is commercial & information systems manager at    Pacepacker Services. 

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