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Smart technologies underpin the move to more sustainable operations

03 August 2022

Tony Marlow discusses the benefits of, and the link between, the adoption of smart food factory technologies and sustainability. 

In recent years, the emphasis on sustainability within food processing and manufacturing has dramatically increased, with ambitious targets for the sector to achieve and adhere to. 

While we all recognise the societal importance and benefits of such goals, the responsibility often adds additional challenges to an overburdened sector, particularly when working with legacy equipment and facilities which are not cheap or easy to replace. However, in this period of significant cost increases and inflationary pressures, these challenges can also present opportunities, both to drive sustainability and to improve the bottom line.

The latest smart factory technologies can underpin the transition to more sustainable food production and it is often possible, with carefully planned investment, to integrate many of these technologies into the existing manufacturing footprint for sustainability and productivity gains.

A key enabler
Digital transformation, through Industry 4.0, is a key enabler. The latest digital tools can be deployed in all areas of food manufacture and its supply chain, from product or packaging development right through to logistics. It is also becoming easier to find relevant technology that is open and agnostic, making integration with existing systems and equipment more straightforward.

It is often reported that if something can be measured then it can be improved – Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors and devices can be readily installed and connected to collect and receive paperless, real time process data to facilitate interventions that improve product quality and reduce wastes. However, it is important to carefully select the appropriate data points, manage and process them in a meaningful way so that the data is actionable. After all, it is the data and its management that is the ‘smart’ aspect. 

Artificial intelligence (AI) techniques can be applied to the process data to analyse, identify trends and to predict outcomes so that interventions can be easily automated to robustly maintain the optimum process parameters, including energy and or water inputs. This self-optimising approach enables efficient ‘lights-out’ operation, a goal of the smart food factory. This can be augmented by using digital twin and modelling techniques to simulate and refine process outcomes, prior to physical implementation, with sustainability drivers at the very centre of decision making. 

The application of new in-process, automated quality inspections that use advanced vision techniques or novel sensor technology are another valuable tool in both preventing and correcting non-conformances at source before further value is added to a product, again preventing waste.

Furthermore, condition monitoring data can be used to analyse machinery performance metrics, understand micro stoppages, and with machine learning (ML) allow smart, predictive maintenance that can minimise down-time, improve reliability, increase throughput, enhance safety, extend asset life, and ultimately prevent wastes.

Cleverly integrated IIoT data, Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) and Manufacturing Execution Systems (MES) can provide incredibly powerful tools to enhance operational insights and provide visibility into value chains, key performance indicator analytics and to allow a predictive planning capability that can reduce or eliminate unnecessary inventory and work in progress to schedule balanced workflows for efficient operations. 

To be sustainable, we need to produce our food as efficiently and with as little energy use as possible, therefore intelligent robotics and automation, particularly flexible, reconfigurable solutions, which can manage repetitive but complex tasks are also an important part of the toolset when appropriately specified and implemented. Through being able to manage tasks consistently with speed and accuracy; robotics and automation can improve efficiency, reduce downtime, reduce errors, and increase plant output while freeing up increasingly precious human resources for more important tasks.

A key challenge
A key challenge for food manufacturers is knowing where to start with the implementation of smart technologies. Naturally, some processes will be easy to identify because they have a disproportionately large energy consumption or consistently cause downtime issues, but equally these could also be the most difficult, disruptive, and expensive to improve. 

The wonderful thing is that sustainability gains are accumulative. Even seemingly small implementations can have an impact. For example, the use of mixed reality headsets for remote support, audit and inspection activity can avoid wasteful travel between sites. Automating a machine adjustment or by interlocking machine control with planning data and radio-frequency identification (RFID) enabled ‘format parts’ can reduce change over bottlenecks and prevent errors, allowing additional minutes of efficient line output. At the other end of the scale exploring technology enabled, waste stream valorisation solutions, implementing smart building technology or starting a transition to cleaner energy solutions could be appropriate.

It is an important first step to take an overall system view of operations, understand the current state and work with stakeholders from across the business to develop a transformation strategy – a roadmap that can deliver the future state over a sensible timeline with priorities determined according to sustainability impact, business drivers, culture, capabilities or constraints, skill requirements, ease of implementation and return on investment. 

A structured approach will help de-risk any transformation plans, through fact-based analysis and secure business rationale, avoiding costly short-term mistakes and ensuring alignment and integration of sustainability aims with the strategic growth ambitions and resource capabilities of the business overall.

The Manufacturing Technology Centre has been able to draw on its cross-sector experience to develop several tools that can help support food and drink manufacturers to both develop and execute a successful transformation strategy that takes a people first, technology enabled approach to delivering their sustainability ambitions. 

In other areas the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC) is working collaboratively on clean energy technologies including hydrogen and have the capabilities to help support supply chain decarbonisation and the transition to green power sources.

Tony Marlow is business development manager – UK Food and Beverage at the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC).

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