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Setting goals and making use of data for digital success

10 May 2021

Food Processing has brought together some top tips for engineers in the food manufacturing sector looking to digitalise their factory floor processes. 

The food and beverage industry has been slower than some other industries when it comes to the adoption of digital solutions and this is because there are some unique challenges facing the sector. “Harsh production environments, stubborn stakeholders and strict regulatory requirements don’t make for an agile sector,” points out Andy Graham, solutions manager at SolutionsPT.

However, it is these barriers to digitalisation that deploying new technology in a strategic and connected way can help overcome. Moving forward with a digital transformation would mean that engineers and managers in the food and beverage sector could benefit from improved efficiency and would have an easier time complying with food safety regulations. It would also give the ability to address the constantly changing concerns of consumers. 

“It is important to visualise the digital transformation as an organisation-wide culture change,” continued Graham. “New technology investments often come from a single decision made in the boardroom that trickles down to the plant floor. This can work against a successful digital transformation programme. Decisions made in the boardroom must be driven by the needs of the plant floor, with business-wide strategic thinking, to be most effective. The best tip I can offer is to get sponsorship from the entire enterprise, and not just in a monetary sense. 

“Each role in the factory has different requirements – onsite operators can be concerned that new technology would complicate a process that has been working adequately for a long time. They may be concerned about the impact on jobs or having the required skills available to implement it. Those at a C-suite level may also be concerned about the skills issue and the cost of investment for new equipment and the disruption caused by implementation,” he said.

According to Graham, all of these concerns can be alleviated by a strong, business-wide digital transformation strategy that utilises data from the machine level to the business level. “Process operators would actually gain time from the removal of repetitive tasks, enabling them to focus on the uniquely human functions that drive improvement,” explained Graham. Management would also see real-time productivity and efficiency improvements, making it easier than ever to build a business case for continued digital transformation programmes.” 

With new models for procurement, the upfront cost of implementing new technologies can now be offset. Graham points out that software is also increasingly being seen as a service model which offers a solution to enable the level of flexibility that is the hallmark of digital transformation.

The essence of digitalisation
According to Stephen Hayes, managing director at Beckhoff UK, data is the essence of digitalisation, so the first step for engineers embarking on a journey to digital transformation should be to plan the optimum way of communicating data between machines and systems. Explaining further, Hayes said: “Focus first on the communication technologies – namely fieldbuses – rather than immediately considering new machinery or equipment investments.”

According to Hayes, fieldbus and industrial Ethernet-based systems are often overlooked in the digitalisation process because engineers are already familiar with one or several of them. “Although these technologies have been around for many years, there are several that are continually developed and built on open standards to keep up to date with the evolving needs of digital technology. Among these, EtherCAT remains one of the best choices thanks to its high data rates, low cost and deterministic, synchronous nature,” he said.

Hayes believes that the use of a fieldbus like EtherCAT is invaluable because it facilitates not only high speed transmission of data for control or collection purposes, but it does so in a highly efficient way. Explaining further, he said: “Each telegram of data is transmitted from the master device and passes through each node on a network. Each node takes only the relevant packets of data necessary as the telegram continues to move downstream, eliminating network delays and simplifying synchronous multi-axis control.

“With efficient communication of data on networks, engineers can ensure that any new automation or digital systems can perform to a higher standard immediately after setup. This is why it is the most important first step for any engineer starting to digitalise the factory floor.” Hayes goes on to explain that once the communication layer is established, the ideal next steps are to ensure that prospective technology is able to be adequately used by engineers and that it meets the long-term business goals. 

Key to flexibility
As we have already discussed, food and beverage manufacturers face different challenges to many other industry sectors. It is a highly regulated sector servicing constantly evolving consumer demands so food manufacturers need to remain agile and flexible to succeed. Digitalisation offers the key to achieving this flexibility. Indeed, according to Greg Hookings, head of business development – digitalisation at Stratus Technologies, it is the only way for to meet these demands and this can be a daunting thought for managers faced with legacy plant equipment and strict production targets that don’t allow for a moment of downtime. 

“My advice is to apply computing power where you need it most,” said Hookings. “By focusing on edge computing as an enabler of digital transformation, deploying this on a legacy asset can quickly bring it into the future. Choosing a secure edge computing environment which is simple to implement and runs autonomously, can offer the real-time insight and virtualised flexibility to make significant steps into a broader digital transformation journey.”  

Deploying edge computing enables legacy hardware to join the integrated wider network. It offers insight to those at machine level and in the control room. “With the right deployment, it is possible to start seeing the benefits of digital transformation almost immediately. By reducing unplanned downtime and using new machine insight to implement predictive and preventative maintenance strategies, output is improved at the same time as efficiency,” continued Hookings. “An enterprise with effective edge computing is one that can prevent failure rather than just recover from it, with onsite operators who can see in real-time the health of the machine. It moves the maintenance function on from being reactive, or based on broad estimations of time and usage. Instead it can be based on data collected and processed at source – at the edge of the network – on the factory floor.” 

So, Hookings advice is to start your digitalisation journey at the edge of network and work your way in. “You will find that real-time data analysis capabilities feed in to everything you do, and when implemented with architecture that is secure, autonomous and simple to implement and maintain it offers a fast-start to a digitally transformed future that can keep pace with consumers and give you an edge over the competition,” he said. 

Identify your goals
Andrew MacPherson, food & beverage industry manager at Festo, says it is important to identify clear goals before starting any digitalisation project. “Unless there is a clear vision and strategy for implementation, your digitalisation project can quickly become a drain on resources,“ he warns. “Don’t try to take on too much at first. It’s important to start with easily-understood projects that can be scaled up into larger projects as the business gains confidence. Your strategy should state clearly what it is you are trying to achieve. Are you trying to solve a problem, or make the most of new opportunities? Is it a bottom-up or a top-down process?” 

Taking a step-by-step approach will ensure that factors such as networking, machine-to-machine communications and integration with legacy systems can all be considered and addressed in a timely and cost-effective way. “Digitalisation is a journey that can best be achieved when the organisation has acquired the necessary knowledge, confidence and experience – so ensure that all elements are in place before over-committing resources,” continued MacPherson. “To make sure that the strategy is implemented successfully, it can be useful to appoint an internal digitalisation champion – someone who manages the cross-functional strategy and team, bringing together the relevant technical and business skills. An essential part of this role will be to obtain team buy-in. This is absolutely critical – many a strategy has foundered because the rest of the team did not understand the vision.” 

So, part of your strategy has to take into account the people factor. Business transformation means change, which makes employees nervous. Reasons include fear of the unknown; belief that there is no personal reward; an existing climate of distrust; fear of failure; and worries about job security. “The challenge for leadership is to make sure these concerns are addressed and that appropriate support and training is available so that all employees are equipped for the journey ahead. Everyone should understand and accept the need for digitalisation, know how they are contributing to it, and how they will benefit from it. A clear communication strategy and inclusion of all stakeholders (including IT, human resources, production etc.) is crucial to the success of any digitalisation project”.

Focused thinking
Sean Robinson, service leader at Novotek UK and Ireland, agrees that it is important to define goals This, he says, will focus the company’s thinking around the capabilities needed, and from that what changes in procedures and technology may be needed. “Whether looking to deliver on a continuous improvement project that has been identified as part of a formal process, or just illustrating the value of a cross-functional team unleashed with time to think deeply about big goals, it is key to let the desired improvement dictate what kind of digitalisation will be needed,” he said. “For example, if material costs are too high and the agreed goal is to reduce them, a digitalisation project should establish systems that identify the factors influencing this. Understanding the root causes for yield problems could require a combination of machine data, ambient condition data, quality or lab data and information about material quality provided by suppliers. Thinking through where data is readily available, versus where it’s trapped in paper, spreadsheets or isolated automation, will ensure the plan can deliver on the purpose.”

For businesses with some digital or automation technologies already in place, Robinson says that one of the most valuable things to do is review the lay of the existing digital landscape. “The easiest approach to doing this is to apply the ‘three Rs’ to your existing data – reduce systems overlap, reuse data and recycle data,” he said.

Reducing systems functional and data collection overlap not only makes it easier for managers to identify the source of a specific data set, it also streamlines costs. Why have a downtime system collecting machine event data, a yield analysis system collecting overlapping data and a work in progress tracking system that is separate to both of those? Having three systems collecting fundamentally the same data means duplicated configuration and deployment costs, as well as possible conflict over which one holds the ‘truth’.

“An effective data and digitalisation strategy should also aim to re-use data collected for one purpose to feed various, other systems or reports, enabling additional insights, or triggering other work processes,” continues Robinson. “For example, the downtime event data collected for OEE calculations may be part of what’s needed to solve a quality problem. The energy and water data collected for sustainability reporting may hold the key to real savings opportunities. Wherever there is a connection to a data source, managers should think of ways to make sure that a data point only needs to be collected once in order to be used many times.”

Any digital transformation must start with a good understanding of the goals – what do you want a digital project to achieve?  Successful projects will be those that are an enterprise-wide undertaking, encompassing every part of a business – from raw materials to end-product, and on to the consumer. Ensuring a rapid return on investment requires the use of digital technology to release human potential at every level of the company – from the reduction of repetitive tasks on the factory floor right through to the availability of information to improve mid and longer-term decision making in the C-suite. 

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