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Turning the key on food security

04 January 2021

David Dearden discusses a secure alternative to passwords for protecting manufacturing processes and increasing product safety in the food and drink sector. 

Managing passwords has become a major part of everyday life – as individuals we all use them but, in the age of industrialised digitalisation and the increased need for total traceability in the food industry, do they still cut the mustard for managing processes and keeping the operators involved in the setting up and running of equipment safe? 

Food manufacturers have to comply with very stringent safety and quality standards but there are more secure alternative solutions for controlling and managing access to process changes – including equipment producing anything from meat pies to pizzas – than the widely-used password-based system. These include biometrics, smart cards or an electronic key system (EKS).

Strong passwords are an effective security tool as long as they are not revealed, shared or hacked. Lapses happen – like a person leaving a post-it note with their personal details for accessing their email account stuck to the side of a computer – so it’s quite common in manufacturing sectors to see passwords or codes used to make significant changes to process parameters on a production line written on a control panel as a reminder for all to see.

Compromising product safety
Poor password security can compromise product safety and cause issues if replicated throughout a plant’s production lines, especially during the Covid-19 pandemic when people self-isolating could return to work, having forgotten their own password and borrowing someone else’s – all individual traceability is lost with shared passwords.

Many systems do not automatically log users off, and those that do might only do so after a long period of inactivity. This could result in someone taking over operation of machinery using the same access details. If this involves recipe management – for example if the machine is set for hazelnut spread but should have been switched to nut-free snacks, the safety implications could be significant. If a supervisor with extended access rights leaves a session open this could allow potentially dangerous actions to be carried out, like initiating a Cleaning-in-Place (CIP) process.

As even more exacting requirements for full transparency and traceability in the food supply chain are expected, such as the identification of a particular operator of a production line at a specific time, data interfaces with very low possibilities of manipulation or error will be vital for discovering who did what and when, and even preventing an undesirable operation taking place in the first place.

An EKS offers a solution for not only secure access to process functions and data, but also traceability of events through the existing plant control system. A Euchner EKS, for example, provides colour-coded inductive key tags to enable or control multiple processes, and including hazardous mode selection, thereby improving safety for both employees and customers alike. 

The RFID-based solution is freely programmable. A reader scans the data and forwards this information to the control system. Additional uses for an EKS system include controlling specific functions and accessing encrypted process parameters for an installation. 

An EKS can also offer a fast and secure solution when switching between processes, user profiles and data, saving operators time when moving between equipment or changing the parameters, both logging in – they don’t need a keyboard – and setting up, where the key can call up information such as access rights, recipe settings, training records, etc – minimising the risk of people doing things they shouldn’t. Tag readers are housed in hygienic, compact and robust units for use in harsh environments, which gives the electronic key system a tough ingress protection rating of IP69, making it suitable for CIP applications or areas with high pressure jet spray cleaning. 

There are increasingly diverse applications for biometric and machine vision technologies that are focusing on the food industry as a password replacement. However, a fingerprint reader could be problematic where most operators are required to wear gloves and/or have dirty fingers. An electronic key is a flexible, effective alternative which can phase out human error and provide increased safety for employees, systems and processes.

David Dearden is UK&I country manager at Euchner.

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