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Digitalisation: identifying challenges and finding solutions

25 April 2022

Suzanne Gill asked automation vendors what challenges food processors commonly face when looking to digitise a production line or plant and also asked them for advice on how to overcome these hurdles. 

(Image courtesy Mitsubishi Electric Europe B.V)
(Image courtesy Mitsubishi Electric Europe B.V)

Chris Evans, vertical industry and projects group manager at Mitsubishi Electric UK: 
The key to digitalisation is having the ability to capture data from the asset level about plant performance, downtime and energy efficiency. Fundamentally that requirement is the adoption of automation at the asset level and the presence of an Operational Technology (OT) network infrastructure which will capture data and be able to analyse it and turn it into real information. 

While many plants do have good levels of automated assets they can still find that without a site standard, the plant is populated with assets controlled by multiple automation vendor’s equipment. This not only causes extra cost due to the need to hold multiple spares, but it can also lead to legacy automation issues further down the line. 

Understanding where the current plant sits in relation to these requirements is crucial from a planning, budget allocation and return on investment (ROI) perspective. The good news is that with the right approach, all of these challenges can be overcome, or at least minimised.

It is easy to think that digitalising a food manufacturing plant, in order to create a smarter operation, should be tackled from the top down. However, the challenges that typically face us would appear to suggest that the best approach is actually to focus on the production end of the plant first and as always it is not as straightforward as that. 

Firstly, and arguably most importantly, any digitalisation project should consider what success looks like. What improvements are you trying to make and how can you quantify the ROI? Next, as already discussed, it is important to look at the level of automation and network infrastructure that already exists and whether that meets the needs of the project. Equally, the vision of the final goal should be considered – ultimately how far are you aiming to travel along the road to digitalisation? 

Opening up
With the adoption of open network standards and standard communication protocols, the issue of disparate automation vendors existing at the asset level is not such a problem, providing that the automation vendor chosen at the data capture level, to pull all the data together, supports these standards. Data capture solutions deployed at the edge layer should be capable of varying degrees of data aggregation and analytics and should offer a scalable and flexible approach to meet the project budget. 

It is important to understand what data management system either exists or will exist at the enterprise or data management level, whether deployed in cloud services or at on premises servers. This will dictate how each of the assets will pass their data to the next level. It is possible to interface directly with the enterprise level without deploying a data capture solution at the edge layer, although it can often be false economy to pass multiple unaggregated data points to the enterprise level as this can be costly and does not operate in real time with the plant. 

Successful digitalisation projects will have considered the levels of investment required to deliver against the desired outcome, focusing on the automation and network infrastructure required to capture data and a clear plan and methodology which demonstrates how that data is processed, aggregated and delivered back as useful information. 

Keith Thornhill, head of food & beverage UK & Ireland at Siemens Digital Industries:
Over the past two years, the British food and beverage sector has had to navigate a pandemic, continued economic volatility, increased focus on the climate crisis and many other unprecedented factors. Amid all the uncertainty, one thing has become clear: the rate at which organisations must adopt digitalisation is increasing.

I question how many organisations have a clear, long-term strategy for digitising a factory. Deploying a piece of technology to improve a process is fine (and can add tangible benefits to your operations), but the latest technologies allow organisations to rapidly optimise factories’ performance to transform themselves into more profitable digital leaders.

As it stands, I’m not too sure there are many companies with end-to-end connectivity as their vision. Businesses know that they must adopt technology soon and that the technology will make a difference, of course, but they only see this in terms of how it benefits their short-term, rather than how it will affect them in 5-10 years’ time.

A few months ago, one of my colleagues was invited to pitch the benefits of technology to the senior leadership of a sizable food manufacturing business. My colleague said no. Why? Because it was clear to them that the organisation wasn’t ready for digital transformation. Instead, they worked with the organisation to identify and understand its challenges, establishing a vision for what it wanted to achieve, before helping it to assemble a pathway to its goal. Only after this exercise was the organisation ready to embark on a digitalisation journey.

Digital transformation is not a fragmented, piecemeal solution. It must be a joined-up, integrated, whole-company solution touching on every facet of power, production and people. In order to gain the maximum value from digitalisation, end goals and visions must be defined before technology is considered. Not only is technology expertise required, but internal buy-in is essential so that entire organisations understand the ‘why?’. If finance is a blocker, organisations must source finance providers with a strong understanding of industrial technology who can flex payments to an organisation’s technological needs.

So, where does technology come in? When I talk to senior leaders within the food and beverage sector, I often hear complaints that their factories are producing so much data they don’t know where to start. This is why I usually advise the organisations I work with that the best place to start a transformation journey is by collecting and analysing operational data. With a digital, holistic view of operations, engineers and operators can more clearly identify where further investment is needed and can begin to consider a long-term approach. 

In some cases, technical expertise is required, but often data needs to simply be presented through accessible visualisation systems so that operations can be measured and managed, and inefficiencies or bottlenecks can be identified.

Once bottlenecks are identified, each organisation’s journey begins. Perhaps specific areas of production need to be simulated to understand how tweaks and developments could improve performance and save costs. Digital models can provide a sensible starting point to simulate other areas of production, so that a full digital twin of production can be formed. By building a comprehensive ecosystem of technologies, organisations can better understand the potential of their factories, while maximising the potential of what they already have. 

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