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Sustainability through efficiency

10 October 2022

Jon Darling discussed how greater sustainability can be achieved through efficient food factory operations.

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Each year, the FDA and USDA list hundreds of food recalls. On average, a product recall will cost the violating organisation between $10 million and $30 million. To make up for losses, many food manufacturers look for low-hanging operational efficiencies to improve their bottom line. Often, these efficiencies are found in energy and utility bills. 

The mandate for cost savings comes from headquarters. But the weight of accomplishing energy efficiency improvements falls on local plants. However, there is a conflict – the main focus of local plants is production, and activities that don't directly impact productivity aren’t a major concern. Moreover, leaders at these plants are being asked to make a road map for achieving energy-efficiency goals, even though they may not be sustainability experts. 

This is not to say energy efficiency is unimportant because it’s low hanging and out of plant managers’ wheelhouse. In fact, efficient asset operation and management are crucial to plant safety and production capabilities. Achieving improved energy efficiency should be a proactive goal for food manufacturers. Maximising energy efficiency at every level can help companies transition to more sustainable factory solutions and improve safety to fortify operations against potential recalls or similar violations. 

Lack of information 
One of the biggest challenges to improving energy efficiency and sustainability is that plant operators often don’t know where to look for low-hanging opportunities to improve. There are so many areas they could look to, that identifying appropriate projects is a needle-in-haystack activity. 

Operators are also foiled by a general lack of data. Many plants don’t track energy-usage information outside of utility operations. They might know that the furnace is an energy sink, but they don’t have detailed information about operating capacity by time of day or if the furnace or other equipment is pulling too much energy when in use. Often times, these plant operators aren’t aware that they could draw from more sustainable energy sources during specified hours. 

Another obstacle for plant operators is linking energy savings to plant operations. Typically, decision makers focus on minimising energy use during peak times, but they’re often unclear about how their choices impact operational efficiencies. They understand the link: If physical assets don’t have adequate power during important production times, it will be hard to meet productivity goals. Food manufacturers also understand the consequences of slowed operations. Downtime is a major revenue killer.

They need to have the data to describe the connection between energy use and operations in detail or predict when a piece of equipment might fail. The inability to link energy efficiency with operational efficiency can introduce unplanned downtime in addition to necessary downtime for processes like clean-in-place (CIP).

Without adequate information, food manufacturers cannot expect to improve energy efficiency and other sustainability measures. 
Thoughtful data use 
To solve data-availability issues, food manufacturers can implement a host of tools on the factory floor to gain necessary insights. IoT sensors on equipment provide detailed, real-time readouts about each physical asset that plant managers can view remotely. Sensors in combination with a data architecture, cloud storage platform and data analysis all in one place can drastically improve transparency and data availability. 

CIP processes exemplify data monitoring in action. CIP requires flushing equipment with water as well as cleaning chemicals. While CIP improves upon the total dismantling and reassembling of factory assets, the activity still introduces downtime and failure points into food plant systems. Without the requisite data platform in place, the process becomes much more burdensome. 

If a manufacturer cannot measure water usage or chemical levels, how can it comply with effluent regulations? If it cannot monitor energy usage during CIP, how can it improve energy efficiency? If there is no data to describe whether the cleaning process worked correctly, how can manufacturers be sure the equipment is free of contaminants? If the plant isn’t tying data from the CIP-related downtime to overall productivity and efficiency, how do they know how much lost ground to make up for?

Without answers to these questions, food manufacturers are likely to end up with safety issues that impact plant workers or recalls that lead to more downtime. If data remains unavailable or analysis opaque, it will be impossible for that plant to realise more environmental and sustainable operations. 

Now consider CIP with a data-monitoring system in place: 

• A plant begins with a benchmark for overall energy consumption. Management can opt for a different mix of energy sources during cleaning to improve consumption efficiency.
• With remote operational diagnostics, maintenance support and quality monitoring, the plant manager knows exactly how much water and energy it’s using during CIP, as well as the exact levels of chemical cleaner in its runoff.
• All this information tells plant management, in real time, whether the process is working correctly. It reduces time to diagnostics, analysis and therefore time to repairs, if necessary.  

Robust data-monitoring systems generate detailed information about CIP on the fly. This infrastructure can generate operational quality reports easily and empower the manufacturer to replicate the monitoring process in other locations and processes. Over time, this data can then be compared, offering a historical view of the operation for reference and tracking of energy savings and other sustainability markers.  

Beyond the factory floor
Monitoring systems and assets on the plant floor provide invaluable detail about sustainability and safety efforts. Scaling this information gathering and analysis outside the factory walls can help food manufacturers further improve sustainability and safety efforts. 

Each plant is just one step along a complicated food supply chain. Manufacturers can leverage data monitoring to improve efficiencies up and down the entire value chain, thereby promoting broader-reaching sustainability practices.  

Food tracing, for example, is a process that can benefit from improved data monitoring and analysis. With enhanced monitoring systems in place, manufacturers are better equipped to:

• Track and trace raw materials and products across the whole supply chain to increase transparency into suppliers’ compliance and risk levels.
• Manage calibration processes digitally to streamline operations and ease audits.
• Protect facilities from unauthorised access for more robust Food Defence practices.
• Monitor the cold chain to better guarantee product safety.
• Enhance the traceability of cleaning and production operations, in compliance with food safety regulations.

Manufacturers may not be able to directly influence the decisions of their supply chain partners. They can choose more sustainable organisations to work with to ensure the chain they operate in is as efficient and sustainable as possible. Decision makers cannot evaluate and amend their respective value chains without improved data and insights into processes, like food traceability. 

Good stewardship 
Sustainability requires food manufacturers to become good stewards of resources. Data-driven stewardship enables plant operators to be proactive about their processes and assets. Proactive organisations are better equipped to run more efficient facilities, reducing costs and expanding operating budgets. Larger budgets allow manufacturers to pay higher worker wages and reduce product costs. 

Pressure to become more sustainable is mounting. More standards for sustainable sourcing, are emerging. Investors are increasingly linking sustainability to valuation, and stock prices often falter after recalls. More efficient and sustainable operations are important for firms’ bottom lines and for all of us as we seek a more planet-forward future. All these aims are possible when manufacturers harness the power of data. 

Jon Darling is CPG industrial automation market segment leader at Schneider Electric.

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