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Do you have the energy to transform production?

19 May 2023

Charles Williams discusses how food manufacturers can reduce their energy usage at the same time as improving productivity and how maximising the potential of apprenticeships can help play a part.

If you search the internet ‘how to reduce energy consumption or improve production throughput’ you’ll get myriad answers, some of which are actually incredibly helpful. Others are generic, non-industry specific responses that are likely to leave you none the wiser.  

What we do know is that as a food manufacturer, throughput in production can mean the difference between meeting quotas and losing customers while the biggest challenge is still to maintain consumer trust in the food you are providing, it’s not just about the quality of the product. Today consumers are starting to ask questions about how food is produced and what the carbon footprint is through the whole supply chain. So, here’s a real challenge:  what is the food industry doing to tackle these issues?

Energy use reduction 
According to the Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre (IDRIC) energy-intensive industries – which includes the food sector – account for around one-sixth of UK CO2 emissions.  Food is vital to everyday life and the industry utilises advanced technology and skilled workers in its processes. Many products are traded internationally which only makes the challenge of reducing energy costs more incumbent on food businesses as a means of tackling future problems today.

There are, of course, many schemes and technologies that allow for the reduction of energy costs. For example, Promtek’s enterprise integration platform is able to monitor fundamental process data for machine performance, offering both historical plant performance as well as real time snapshots of current output such as real time energy usage data. This data allows for machinery performance to be profiled and compared when changes are made to make sure that payback is achieved. It is no longer a case of it is either on or off. 

Further, smart motor control allows targeted equipment power management providing key diagnostic information that enables users to optimise performance with real-time access to operation and performance trends – hence further energy savings. Automation removes human error and influence on the production system. It also increases efficiency and reduces carbon footprint.

Improving production throughput
Mechanically, food factories tend not to change or evolve that quickly but all of the equipment will have motors and sensors, and smart technologies now allow data to be gathered from these individual components. This data is the heart of improving production throughput. Collecting, processing, analysing and validating that data before sending it on to other systems such as enterprise resource planning (ERP) and maintenance management systems, provides the fundamental measurement that will be used to assess production performance. Enterprise integration platforms can give this benchmarking data before and after any changes are made to the production cycle and it will provide the evidence required to show it has been successful.

Another challenge affecting production throughput in the modern food industry is spikes and dips in demand. These are difficult to predict (except for the obvious seasonal demands) yet they can also be useful and used to drive a positive net gain with the application of smart data. By collecting a good amount of data from early on in the process – such as the physical impact of the ingredients on the equipment – and relating that back to the dates in question it is possible to identify patterns which can help predict the impact of demand on the machinery’s reliability more accurately. Do this over time and it is possible to see annual trends too.  

In a spike phase you do not want the factory to let you down. Knowing the supply chain and all the demands on it, coupled with ongoing and effective maintenance on machinery, will ensure demand is met. A dip in demand offers an opportunity to carry out that maintenance and review production throughput, ultimately using the dip strategically. Data collection from the factory provides indisputable facts on what is needed, how it is needed and when it is needed, and that data will feed into a producer’s planning process.

Carbon neutrality has become the favoured touchstone in the drive for sustainability, but I would argue that it is not enough. If the industry fails to embed the knowledge, experience and skills gained over the last 40 years into the next generation of engineers, technicians, production managers and business owners, then all the benefits of carbon reduction will be wasted by the effort of re-learning all those lessons in the course of replacing old equipment with new, rather than learning new techniques to adapt and update the equipment to keep it fit for purpose. Young and inexperienced new starters joining our industry are vital to creating a sustainable knowledge base and must be empowered.

Benjamin Franklin said, ‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn,’ and it’s as true today as it was then. When employees lack proper training, they cannot support a business properly; when they are poorly trained, they can be a danger and actually create delays to a production schedule. Properly trained employees and suppliers with the appropriate skills to make confident, well-informed changes to the production process is key to maximising throughput.

The investment in staff, and staff training, can be normalised across the industry and will create real time improvement in production throughput as employees will feel rewarded and valued which will, in turn, add value to any food processing business.

So, controlled energy costs – through carbon footprint reduction – data driven production throughput and component staff well versed in company ethos and accountability will help ensure the continued success of the food industry. 

Charles Williams is Managing Director at Promtek Ltd.

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