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Embracing change

03 February 2020

Ed Keenan believes that the journey towards a smart food factory must start with a desire to embrace change. 

Simply put, a smart food factory is one where the equipment and systems are linked together in a way that allows the processes to learn and adapt. The benefits of this will include more efficient production, lower levels of downtime and shorter changeovers, optimised supply chains, and a decrease in waste and defective products which, ultimately will result in lower costs. 

Key enabling technologies for smart manufacturing include big data, connected devices and services, and advanced robotics. 

It would appear that engineering progress in the UK has been a victim of its own success, because many engineers are reluctant to change. Many take pride in how old their machines are and how they have managed to keep them running for so long. In contrast, engineers in other countries take pride in how new their machines are! So, before the food industry can start on the smart factory journey it first needs to change this mindset and begin to embrace change.

Probably the biggest change in the long-term future of food production will be the realisation of artificial general intelligence (AGI). This is different to AI in that it is the intelligence of a machine that could successfully perform any intellectual task that a human being can. In the future, in addition to being able to learn, AGI may also be able to redesign its own hardware and internal structure. Experts are yet to concur when it comes to timescales for this to happen. Current thoughts range anywhere from some point in the next ten years, with the general consensus being around 40 years – so, some time around 2060. Looking even further into the future, AGI may eventually enable factories to design and run themselves without the need for any human input. 

In the meantime, however, AI is already being employed in many smart factory applications. One of the most impactful areas of its utilisation currently is within big data processing

Big data processing
Big data analytics is the process of gathering and making sense of large data sets to enable businesses to predict demand and design change requirements rather than reacting to orders being placed. This principle can be applied both to the external supply chain and also the internal ingredient flow through the factory.

Big data processing can also be used to create self-diagnostic predictive machines. There are several ways that machines can already identify future problems – such as part failures – the best of which analyse data captured from the machine to make live assessments against peer machines and components from around the world, creating powerful predictive algorithms and scheduling maintenance, ordering spare parts, and plant shut-downs, all based on anomalies identified through the algorithms. So, they are using IIoT, big data and Industry 4.0 principles.

Essentially they are predicting an event based on an anomaly within this collected big data. The outcome being results far beyond human analysis capability. Instead of waiting for parts deliveries, the modern smart factory is now equipped to download the necessary data files and 3D print its own spare parts.

3D printing
How often have you had to wait for a part, sacrificing valuable operating time? And how many costly critical spare parts are stored onsite but never get used? 3D printers will allow for the rapid creation of spare parts onsite. The space and money tied up in holding spare parts could be freed up to help finance the procurement of the 3D printer.

Advanced robotics
One of the more visible areas of AI use is around robots and cobots. Advances in robotic cognitive ability allow these smart machines to operate autonomously, working collaboratively with humans without the need for segregation. In doing so they take up far less space on the factory floor
Robots and collaborative robots – or cobots – have really come down in price and are now available from around £5k. It is even possible to pick up a delta robot today for £2k. These robots can be quickly reconfigured and re-purposed from one job to another. However, it is vital to ensure that all the necessary safety and hygiene standards are adhered to for all possible applications that the robot may be required to undertake. For many applications, due to speed, payload and reach limitations, often it is an unguarded robot, and not a cobot that may offer a better solution.

We also need to consider automated storage & retrieval systems (ASRS) and Automated guided vehicles (AGV). ASRS systems automatically move items in and out of storage without the need for humans or fork lift trucks, they are particularly useful for finished product pallet storage. Thanks to the increased storage densities, when compared to conventional racking, costs can now be competitive due to building and land cost savings, and that is before you take into account the ongoing labour savings.

AGV’s allow items to be transported flexibly around a factory. These portable robots follow along marked long lines or wires on the floor, or uses radio waves, vision cameras, magnets, or lasers for navigation. They allow factory layout changes in a more flexible manner than fixed conveyor systems as well as a reduced space requirement compared with fixed conveyor installations.

Industrial connectivity 
Using Internet connectivity and cloud storage, manufacturers are able to access highly configurable computing resources and data storage. Data can be collected from machines, and production can be tracked and monitored in real time. This data enables operational decisions to be made, and the open communication between machines and system means that sites can even be controlled remotely through mobile phone apps. 

Connectivity also allows planning systems to receive live sales data and cascade this back through the production process all the way to the ingredients, scheduling optimised production and changeovers. 

In the coming years the UK food industry will need to embrace the smart factory and its associated technology. Running parallel to technology adoption we can expect to see some fairly major technology advances which will require a new set of skills for operators. So, love or loath the idea, it is vital that the food industry starts to embrace change in order to gain competitive advantage.

Ed Keenan is head of process at Integrated Food Projects.

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