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Get smart for greater sustainability

19 September 2022

Suzanne Gill asked two technology providers about the role that automation has to play in helping to manufacture food in a more sustainable way.

Q: In your view, do food processors consider ‘sustainability’ to be an operational imperative or purely a business requirement?

Phil Hadfield, UK managing director at Rockwell (PH): Manufacturers across all industries are leveraging sustainable manufacturing practices to meet consumer expectations, reduce costs and waste, and improve operational efficiency. Typically, sustainable manufacturing will go hand-in-hand with smart manufacturing, as operators will look to automate processes which reduce downtime and improve supply chain traceability. 

In the past few years, we have seen many food processors accelerate the adoption of automated and connected solutions on the factory floor to keep pace with customer demands. So, sustainability is no longer just the right thing to do, it is a business imperative. 
Charles William, managing director at  Promtek (CW): In my opinion businesses currently see sustainability as a business requirement and not an operational imperative. This is because the majority of our food manufacturing clients push the life cycle of their process control equipment much further than they are designed for. They should be reviewing the technology every five years but at the moment they are probably doing it every 20 years before replacement. And then they are only doing it because the hardware has become unreliable not because it is obsolete.

Q: Where in a typical food factory would you expect to see the fastest ROI following investment in more sustainable production? And, what processes/systems would you expect to be involved in this investment?

PH: Sustainable food production goes beyond the factory floor as we have to analyse each step of the supply chain from the source to the end-user. Of course, there are elements to factor in, such as ingredients, waste and packaging, but the fastest return on investment will depend on what they are producing and how they are packaging it. Here, control systems have an important role to play in improving operational efficiency. 

CW: In a typical food factory I would expect to see the fastest ROI following investment in tools that provide production data analysis and insights, from existing production data. I would expect investment to involve integrations between the factory automation and control systems, ERP (enterprise resource planning) and CMMS (computerised maintenance management systems) to benchmark what is currently happening on the factory floor before any major technology change is planned.

Q: Are there any emerging technologies which you believe could make sustainable food processing easier or more cost-efficient to achieve?

PH: The future of sustainable food processing will be powered by digital technologies such as digital twins and advanced analytical software engines. Digital twins enable manufacturers to design the plant virtually before implementing, and then maintain a virtual model to ‘test’ system changes, giving manufacturers the opportunity to adapt to consumer demands and improve product consistency and quality. 

Advanced analytics platforms and machine learning support manufacturing businesses in critical decision-making but also enhance business capabilities in pricing, product promotion, product development and demand forecasting. Therefore, it makes sense for the food industry to dive into the use of sophisticated analytics tools and methods to better understand consumers and uncover emerging market trends. This enables food manufacturers to personalise customer experience and deal with fluctuations in trends, utilising technology to remain competitive.

CW: Smart motor control consists of motors and sensors that can communicate directly with an integration platform without needing a control system to qualify the data. Smart motor data, such as energy consumption, motor vibrations or temperature and near infrared spectroscopy (NIR) are increasingly cost efficient to collect. A suitable integration platform can merge them with traditional recipe data to provide new insights into improvements that can lead to sustainable food processing.

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