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Smarten up to the future of food manufacturing

05 February 2018

Where and why should food and beverage processors start their smart manufacturing journey? Suzanne Gill asked a variety of automation and equipment suppliers for their thoughts and advice. 

As delegates at this year’s Appetite for Engineering event will already know, the food industry needs to be preparing itself for change. Standing still is no longer an option for those wanting to increase productivity and competitiveness. Smarter food factories will be in a better position to transform their operations to achieve these goals and be more flexible in order to meet fast-changing consumer demands.

Gary Kirk, industries sales manager, consumer packaged goods at Rockwell Automation, believes that having the ability to access relevant, real-time and role-based information will enable more informed decision-making at every level and will create opportunities for food and beverage manufacturers to improve their processes. He says that advances in equipment, control systems and information systems can also help to establish more flexible and more responsive operations. “The benefits of smart manufacturing extend far beyond operational improvements,” he said. “A secure network infrastructure, greater connectivity and access to actionable information also create opportunities to enhance quality, food safety and worker safety – helping to reduce regulatory compliance burdens.”

However, the question asked by many engineers in the food industry today is how and where to start this smart factory journey. “The answer to the ‘how’ question is not the same for everyone,” explained Kirk. “The Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) will have a profoundly different effect on each manufacturer, so each must undertake their own journey, dependent on what they produce, what plant they have in place, what implementation skills or partnerships are available to them, and what they are hoping to achieve.

“However, the first steps to adoption are fairly simple. The lifeblood of the IIoT is data, and most food manufacturers are already producing huge amounts of this from their existing infrastructure. The real benefits come from turning that data into actionable information.” A common first step is to prove the concept of IIoT with a single project or a single line. “This is an affordable starting point which will highlight the benefits and the specific challenges your organisation will need to overcome. Moving from a single line to factory-wide adoption will be made easier by learning from the first project,” said Kirk.

Start your journey today
With the UK food industry under increasing pressure to improve productivity, the time to start the smart factory journey is now, according to Martin Walder, VP Industry at Schneider Electric.

“The food industry is being challenged to keep pace with rapidly changing demands. For example, supermarkets need to meet consumer demand for both convenience eating and healthy eating, while also using high quality packaging in the right proportion to reduce waste. At the same time, organisations need to be reducing selling prices, while increasing margins. This means it is vital that food processors find new ways to maximise both speed and efficiency,” he said. 

“The IIoT can offer many new possibilities to achieve these goals. Some organisations are already starting to reap the benefits and have complete visibility and control over everything – from raw materials in the plant, through to safe preparation, packaging, palletising and dispatch,” said Walder.  

However, to get IIoT right and to be truly smart, food manufacturers need to do more than just connect their devices. “It’s about creating a seamless ecosystem, one that allows humans and machines to perform optimised end-to-end processes while working safely and smartly,” he said. “Ultimately, connected devices are enabling organisations to look at their data, measure results more closely and make informed business decisions. Right now, the best business decision a food manufacturer could make is to take a leap and join the smart, digital world. Most are already using some form of technology, such as automation, so now really is the time to take the plunge to ensure processes are flexible enough to meet the demands facing the sector”.

Key drivers for adoption?
Andy MacPherson, food & beverage industry manager at Festo, is seeing a strong desire within the food processing sector to embrace automation and the advantages of Industry 4.0 enabled technology. He said: “The key drivers for this are the looming skills shortage, particularly for manual tasks, and the constant pressure to produce high quality, reliable and healthy foods with total traceability.” The smart factory has the potential to remove inefficiencies and overheads by reducing human interventions – particularly where the work is repetitive and low-skilled – as well as significantly improving traceability and reducing waste.

“We have already started the journey towards the smart factory and there is so much we are already capable of,” said MacPherson. “Components already exist to support production line flexibility, greater collaboration and open communications. Food processors should not wait until they are building a new line or replacing an old machine to take advantage of these benefits: digitalisation is possible with existing plant too. Adding sensors and data logging solutions can deliver many of the benefits of Industry 4.0 without the need to replace existing equipment.”

MacPherson goes on to suggest that food processors and machine builders should join forces to determine what technology is still required and what skills will be needed. “The UK Government has made a significant amount of money available as part of the Industrial Strategy for re-skilling the workforce to support a more automated industrial base: the food sector needs to ensure it secures the funding it requires to secure its future. “We have a massive opportunity to implement the training and the technology that will make the UK food industry a global leader and I would urge the sector to seize the moment.”

Work is underway
“Central to the successful adoption of Industry 4.0 across the UK is the uptake of digital technologies and work is underway to ensure this happens,“ said Keith Thornhill, business manager – food and beverage, Siemens UK & Ireland. He cites the launch in January 2017 of the Industrial Digitalisation Review, led by Siemens CEO Juergen Maier, on the back of the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy, as an example. The aim is to forge a roadmap on how UK companies can adopt digital technologies and how they can make the most of the opportunities that digitisation offers.

According to Thornhill, food and beverage manufacturing enterprises that are able to utilise the advantages offered by intelligent data, will find themselves in a far stronger position to be able to deal with the challenges of an increasingly competitive local, national and even international marketplace. “The biggest challenge for the sector is to seek out improved efficiencies that can influence all areas of production and operation,” he said. 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, for example, real time data from production lines can alert engineers to potential problems before they occur and can help prevent line stoppages that affect or even halt production. Such data streams are already available, but they need to be better analysed and employed to enhance the long-term efficiency of the line.

Improved scrutiny of production line performance can also enhance efficiency. 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 game changer, according to Thornhill. 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.

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

This is only feasible if real-time data is extracted and assessed. Scheduling software is now available to deliver such insight so that better information is shared between production and operation functions.

The outputs from a more joined-up production environment can also be used to inform other elements of the supply chain. For example, 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.

End-of-line considerations?
“Increased investment in technology and automation is the key to improved efficiency and productivity and that extends to packaging machinery, which, in the current climate, needs to be modular, smart and fully connected, capable of improving a company’s packaging speed, and able to deliver customised products and effective, scalable production,” said Martin Leeming, CEO of secondary packaging company, TrakRap.

“When starting any smart factory journey, it is important to also focus on the platform upon which your packaging machinery has been built and to re-evaluate the materials and processes you employ in order to ensure you are able to achieve the best possible results.”

Industry 4.0-ready packaging machinery does exist and it is capable of delivering increased efficiencies, better quality and enhanced flexibility, at lower cost and in a more environmentally friendly manner.

Smart technologies also enable companies to take advantage of digitalisation through the production of a ‘digital twin’ – a digital version of the physical machinery which allows extensive simulation and virtual development which can result in new, optimised, operating platforms. This same digital twin then lives in the IoT and continuously monitors the physical twin to ensure each element is operating as it should; if not, this is quickly identified and maintenance can be undertaken in a timely fashion, without the need for unexpected down time.

Leeming offers the experience of Dale Farm Dairy as an example of the benefits of a smarter packaging solution. In 2016, Dale Farm was able to reduce its secondary packaging film usage by 48.5 tonnes (62%). It also reduced its CO2 generation by 253 tonnes and its energy consumption by 153Mw as a result of swapping from its traditionally used shrink-wrap heat-tunnel packaging machines and turning to Industry 4.0-enabled machinery from TrakRap.

The heat-tunnels in its packaging machines had generated so much heat, and the machines themselves routinely became so hot, that the dairy was often uncomfortable to work in. The new machines are heatless so this problem was quickly eliminated and the eco-performance of the dairy was significantly improved.

The change also allowed Dale Farm to reduce its electricity usage for pack wrapping by 95% per year. Because the film used in the new machine is ultra-thin the company is also using 68% less material, further improving its bottom line.

Many food industry suppliers are on the same smart manufacturing journey as their customers. Hosokawa Micron’s own journey started in its Runcorn contract manufacturing facility, within the dedicated food processing unit, where it supports customer requirements for the processing of niche ingredients under food accredited quality control systems. “We have committed to a major digital strategy for contract manufacturing, investing to optimise production and processing performance through the application of IIoT technologies, in conjunction with our human expertise,” said Iain Crosley, MD at Hosokawa Micron. “We employ an ‘understand, monitor and control’ approach which is enabled by combining our operational data from smart sensors with machine to machine (M2M) communication and process optimisation software. The ongoing data analysis can provide insight into all aspects of the plant’s production performance and the status of production assets and can aid strategic decision making, scheduling, predictive maintenance and operational availability. For our contract food processing customers, one immediate benefit has been a reduction in out of specification material, with us now getting it right more than 98% of the time,” said Crosley.

Building on the operational benefits and knowledge gained from this project, Hosokawa recently launched a new business unit, Hosokawa Gen4, to support companies within the process sector to develop their own digital strategy and realise the potential of IIoT technologies.

Despite the challenges posed by the need to increasing adopt automated solutions within the food and beverage industry – including a lack of skills and the funding to move forward with new technologies – the many benefits of digitalising the plant speak for themselves – it really is a no-brainer, and it need not cost anything to start a small IIoT project. In most plant’s the data is already there, you just need to collect it and turn it into useful information. Utilising available data is the first step to creating a smart food factory which is the key to increasing productivity and efficiency. It also offers new options to increase sales through increased product flexibility – giving your business an important edge over your competitors and ultimately helping increasing profitability and ensuring survival in a globally competitive sector.

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