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Industry 4.0: accepting the need for change

10 September 2018

Suzanne Gill looks at the importance of automation and Industry 4.0 technologies for the food and beverage processing sector, and finds out what is driving industry forward with adoption and what is holding it back. 

Andy MacPherson, food & beverage industry manager at Festo, has identified a strong desire within the food processing sector to embrace automation and the advantages of Industry 4.0-enabled technologies. He says that two key drivers for this include the looming skills shortage – particularly for manual tasks – and the constant pressure to produce high quality, reliable and healthy foods with total traceability. 

“The increasing use of automation and the need to be more agile and flexible to meet customer expectations is exacerbating the challenges of training and retaining employees with the relevant skills,” he said. “Defining what skills are likely to be required is a complex challenge, due to the diversity of the supply chain and differing levels of adoption of Industry 4.0 principles. In the agricultural community, for example, manual working continues to prevail because humans are more adaptable than machines in many scenarios. By contrast, automation is more prominent at the processing stage where minimising human contact is beneficial from a hygiene perspective. Packing, picking and warehousing are also becoming much more automated processes today.”

Mistaken beliefs
The mistaken belief that the transition to Industry 4.0 transition demands a big step change is hindering adoption within the food sector, according to MacPherson. He said: “Industry 4.0 principles can be implemented without needing to build a new facility or replace capital equipment. Change can happen in a modest way and can be scaled up gradually. For example, big benefits can be achieved by simply updating existing equipment and retrofitting additional sensors and connectivity devices to transfer key data to a cloud environment.” Simple examples of this could include intelligent valves that monitor air consumption of a machine to better predict and schedule servicing, or checkweighers that communicate with filling machines using standardised protocols to adjust quantities within defined parameters without stopping production. 

“By identifying the areas most in need of improvement and applying Industry 4.0 principles, the food sector could take advantage of the many technological advances that already offer the potential to improve production efficiencies, reduce costs, and make companies more receptive to customer demands,” said MacPherson. “Involving people from the outset of any Industry 4.0 project, and identifying the skills necessary now and in future to achieve this, will ensure that the food sector continues to play a leading role in the UK economy.”

Tightening margins
Another challenge facing the industry today is that margins are being cut by retailers. This requires food manufacturers to find ways to improve their production flow to allow them to become more competitive. Yet another industry trend stems from consumer demand for more customised products – both trends are further drivers for Industry 4.0. “Today food products need to be packed in a much wider variety of ways and this is difficult to achieve with more traditional, high-volume packaging solutions. So, new equipment needs to be designed for greater flexibility and this is a key criteria for those specifying new equipment today,” said Daniel Rossek, regional marketing manager at Omron.

Rossek also agreed with MacPherson that the skills shortage is a big issue for the food processing sector today, and that this is yet another driver for Industry 4.0 adoption. He said: “We are seeing several key challenges facing food producers today and these mainly revolve around a shortage of labour and the growing concern about the potential of Brexit to exacerbate this.” Robotics and automation have a key role to play in helping overcome these labour issues and it is generally agreed that the food and beverage industry is now aware of the necessity of automation and Industry 4.0 adoption.

Rossek explained that, while the food industry has been investing in automation technology for some time, it has traditionally done so with a silo-based mentality – automating individual tasks. Today there is realisation these islands of automation need to be connected up to reap the benefits that can be gained from analysing data and turning it into actionable information to help improve process efficiencies. “Today we are starting to see a lot more interest in smarter automation solutions and are getting more requests for common communication protocols – such as Pack ML, OPC UA or IO-Link – to allow equipment and devices to share information across process lines and across plants.”

Asked why the food industry has been slow to adopt Industry 4.0 technologies, Rossek said that the main barriers are cost and complexity. “It is a reality that there is always a cost implication to adopting new technologies and because the food industry tends to work on much smaller profit margins than, say the automotive or pharmaceutical industries, investment is much more of a challenge. Another barrier to adoption stems from the need for greater engineering competence to manage and service these solutions.” As already mentioned this skill base can be hard to find and is costly. Looking on the bright side, Rossek pointed out that the complexity of automated equipment is now starting to reduce with technologies such as AI and machine learning greatly simplifying things.

Acccording to Rossek the food and beverage industry has already overcome the biggest barrier, which is accepting the need for change. “When it comes to cost there are also far more incentives available to encourage investment in automation and I believe we are now reaching the point where the food industry will move forward. We are already seeing increased investment from the sector in robotics for manual handling and loading applications and in smart sensors and devices to collect information from existing equipment at a relatively low cost. The industry is currently looking to improve what it already has – building a basic network to collect information – and we are seeing this happen much more.” 

The first steps on the road to Industry 4.0 will differ from company to company and Rossek’s advice is to first identify the key issues affecting your factory – where are your production bottlenecks and where do your biggest inefficiencies eminate from? “Internal investigation is always the best place to start your Industry 4.0 journey,” he said. “Companies need to understand what a good outcome for them would look like and then find a solution to help achieve this. Putting smart solutions in place to fix your most obvious issues provides a great starting point to demonstrate the potential and to ensure board level buy-in for future projects.” 

All companies great and small
“All food production processes, no matter how simple, could benefit from Industry 4.0, said Lesley Eaton, business development and marketing manager for pump manufacturer, SEEPEX UK. “There’s a general misconception that it is just for big operations with ultra-sophisticated data capture strategies. However, like most decisions in business, whatever your size, it is really about thinking smarter, selecting the right equipment for the job and factoring in your current and future demands.”

For example, using transducers as pressure or level controls to speed up and slow down a pump, varying the flow rate as required. Rather than using an on/off response when fill levels are reached, pressure transducers can send a variable signal to a PLC integrated to a variable speed drive, that will increase or slow the speed at which the product is delivered accordingly. This helps to reduce the wear rate of the pump, extending the service life and lowering the total cost of ownership (TCO). 

So, even a simple pump, tasked with distributing product from one source to another can become an exponentially more valuable asset when it is connected. Data from one sensor can be combined with data from another and linked with cloud intelligence to make smarter, even autonomous, business decisions. 

“Food processors should be looking at connected devices as a transformational opportunity,” said Eaton. “The reality is that data connectivity and Industry 4.0 permeate every aspect of every food business, large and small, offering the potential to change how we work and reduce machine downtime by providing continuous feedback on performance.” 

Addressing mass customisation 
The currently growing trend towards mass customisation requires more flexible solutions and this can be achieved by ensuring that the systems and controls going into new equipment are scalable. Michael Sachpekidis, new business development manager (automation systems) at ?Lenze UK, said: “If more axes of movement need to be added to a solution, or new features are required, it should be possible without needing to replace the whole system. In addition to having flexible and scalable hardware it is vital that the software also has these benefits to allow end users or machine builders to simply reconfigure machines by tweaking the software.

“To scale up this flexibility to the whole factory requires communication between the siloed machines across the factory floor. To make Industry 4.0 successful it must be possible to access any part of the factory from a central console and to have the ability to gather data and communicate through the factory using an open, standard protocol.” Modularity and connectivity are key here so Sachpekidis’s advice is to stick to open standards and avoid proprietary networks where possible.

“The rate of adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies within the food sector is starting to increase, slowly,” said Sachpekidis. “It is the misconception around security that is holding many back. The reality is that it is possible to use a medium where you don’t actually share access to your machines but you can still share their data. It is important to understand that the benefits of digitalisation really do outweigh any of the potential negatives. I think that upgrading equipment will become a necessity within the next five to 10 years to ensure that productivity improvements can be achieved. While this may be a daunting thought for many, it is important to understand that new technologies can offer a very fast ROI particularly in terms of energy efficiency,” concludes Sachpekidis.
ROI as a smart factory goal
According to research from Barclays Corporate Banking, over 50% of manufacturers are reporting improved productivity thanks to the adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies. Despite this, two-thirds state that they are yet to experience a return on investment (ROI). 

Most factories choose to make small incremental changes to increase their overall equipment effectiveness (OEE) and, in turn, improve their ROI. The process of improvement usually begins by recognising limitations in the factory or within certain processes. This could relate to plant production time or plant performance management, equipment failures, product defects or even a lack of skills. However, without hard data, identifying these constraints can be time-consuming, if manually completed, and complex. 

“Monitoring and data acquisition software can simplify the processes and can quickly identify baseline figures for losses in throughput across a plant or a process. From here it is possible to start making improvements,” said Lee Sullivan, regional sales manager at COPA-DATA UK. “Being able to monitor OEE, total productive maintenance (TPM) and Continuous Improvement (CI) will highlight potential areas for improvement, and also identify whether established improvement projects have facilitated the manufacturing process. For example, a measurable indicator which can lead to improved ROI.”

Waste reduction is an example of CI. The term describes the non-value-added wastages that absorb time and money. Eliminating waste is a vital part of the lean manufacturing methodology and is often the first step to improving processes. Again, monitoring software can help to digitalise and monitor waste. In a food manufacturing facility, waste could be described as a halt in production due to a delivery delay, unplanned system downtime or wasted minutes or hours due to poorly planned production schedules. 

Upon analysing the results of this metric it is possible to start to measure other areas for improvement, such as production quality, CI projects, mobile connectivity, recipe groups, or even begin vertical integration by linking the software to enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems and cloud solutions. 

There is an expectation of a rapid ROI when adopting new technologies — whether it be robotics, automation, sensors or enterprise software and, according to Barclays Corporate Banking research, these investments are reaping productivity rewards. However, it is important to first identify your areas for improvement before it becomes possible to optimise the plant to its full potential.

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