Get smart to stay ahead in food production

25 March 2019

Suzanne Gill finds out where the food industry is on its ‘smart factory’ journey and gets advice about how to make use of new technologies to become more productive and flexible to meet rapidly changing consumer demands.

The move towards more connected, data-driven food and drink production and packaging plants looks set to accelerate, driven by a need to apply greater levels of automation to enable leaner and more efficient production. According to Research and Market’s Food Automation Market – Global Opportunity and Industry Forecast report, the sector is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 7.1% to 2022. 

Martin Walder, VP industry at Schneider Electric, believes that putting smart devices on the factory floor is the answer to many of the challenges facing the food processing industry today. He said: “Manufacturers are now being tasked with keeping pace with rapidly changing consumer demands for personalisation, customisation, quality and choice. They are also challenged with cutting costs, while reducing times to market. 

“Thanks to technology advances, including the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) cobotics and augmented reality, factories now have the tools to allow them to become truly smart. A ‘smart factory’ is one that is equipped with a high level of automation and connectivity – with both suppliers and customers. The key expectation from a smart factory is to enhance quality, delivery service and efficiency. Such factories will have a smart power infrastructure, smart environmental controls and will be fully collaborative with the automation systems.”
Walder warns that any manufacturing operations that do not adopt digital technologies will be marginalised – if not lost. “Ultimately, these technologies are becoming critical for maintaining competitiveness,” he said. “We are already seeing several food manufacturers reap the benefits of these technologies, with increased control and visual capabilities over the production line. Automation does not come without its challenges, but the benefits are now becoming clear.” 

Meaningful data
Russell Morgan, sales manager UK and Ireland at Mettler-Toledo, says that the drive to digitalisation is allowing organisations to collate and interpret meaningful data from across plant operations, providing real-time status information about the manufacturing and packaging process. He said: “Improved connectivity is enabling checkweighers to automatically adjust filling machine settings. Data on product rejects is much easier to export and evaluate, allowing quality indicators to be shared with customers. In addition, emulation techniques enable remote performance monitoring and settings adjustment for product changeovers, improving efficiency. “Employing digitised solutions can also support operation management to keep production running, avoiding downtime and planning maintenance repairs at the right time.”

At the 2018 PPMA show, Rexroth demonstrated some Industry 4.0 solutions in action. Andrew Minturn, business development and strategic product manager at Rexroth, said: “ Once adopted, digital solutions will help manufacturers to make the most of every asset in their facility, helping them to operate more efficiently and productively, essentially improving their competitiveness in the marketplace.
“Industry 4.0 has started to be adopted by manufacturers in all industries over recent years. It is often the small changes which will offer the most value, like installing a new conveyor system which can sit within a connected factory to deliver results from the moment of installation.”

Embracing the concept
Andy MacPherson, food & beverage industry manager at Festo, says that food manufacturers are beginning to embrace the concept of industrial digitalisation and the potential it can offer – improving production efficiencies, reducing costs and being more responsive to customer demands. “Before embarking on the journey, it’s vital that all involved know precisely what they are seeking to achieve,“ he said. “It is important to remember that digitalisation is an evolution, not a revolution,“ His advice is to plan Industry 4.0 implementation as a series of steps, focussing first on areas where it is possible to reap early benefits. “While an entire smart food factory is still some way off, genuine improvements in efficiency and quality are achievable right now by retrofitting Industry 4.0 technologies to existing production lines,“ he said.

Smart food manufacturing will mean different things to different people. OAL visualises it as a flexible unmanned factory from goods-in to end-of-line packaging. “Traditionally the UK food industry has relied on manual labour. However, with labour costs rising, a growing understanding of the problems of human intervention – such as  cross-contamination and health & safety – and the possibilities that are opening up due to rapid advances in automation and robotics technology, it is clear that the food industry needs to start thinking about smart food manufacturing,” said Jake Norman, innovation manager at OAL. “The most important step is to gain a good understanding of the digital technologies available, this is best achieved by speaking to suppliers, systems integrators or universities,” he advises. 

“One of the biggest areas where we see huge opportunity is in ingredients handling. When people are involved in food processing, they make mistakes - that’s human nature when performing repetitive tasks during an eight hour shift. Traditional micro-weighing systems tend to be too expensive and create cross-contamination issues because of common transfer lines and contact surfaces. OAL has developed a robotic weighing system that overcomes these issues with a cost-effective automation solution, enabling the beginning of a smart food factory with unmanned ingredient handling.”

Slow to adopt
John Rowley, sector manager at Mitsubishi Electric, believes that the UK food industry has been  generally slow to adopt smart factory technologies. He said: “We often see food plants that are operating without an industrial network on the factory floor yet establishing network connectivity across a production site is the first step in moving towards being a smart factory.”

Rowley believes that there are several reasons for this, however chief among them is investment cost. “The food industry is typically run on high volumes and small margins. Supply contracts can be short and seasonal demand makes it hard to build large processes that are flexible enough to be used flat-out all year round. However, we find that the cost argument is often the easiest to overcome. 

 “A smart factory can be built one piece at a time, as long as the vision of the final goal is discussed at the outset. Robots are a great example, they have been used in stand-alone packing applications for many years, mainly because these jobs are tiring and repetitive for human operators and the ROI for a packing robot can be achieved very quickly. Robots are increasingly being used in process and assembly situations today as they are now easier to programme, are more flexible and can work alongside human operatives easily without the need for physical guarding systems.”

Rowley argues that the cost of basic automation provision can be small when compared to a standalone piece of equipment such as a new filling machine or a process freezer for example. “Once you have connected one piece of equipment to a control and monitoring platform – and it is providing production data that allows for better control and optimisation the process then there is a strong driver to keep going and include everything in the system,” he said. “This is no bad thing because it is a positive first step towards the creation of a fully smart factory, which will ultimately be more flexible, easier to control and more competitive.

“It is an interesting time for food producers and there are a whole host of other solutions available today, such as edge computing, predictive maintenance and OEE benchmarking that can help improve profitability and scalability. Ultimately, however, for a large number of SMEs, it is still about taking that first step, and that step will be much easier if taken in collaboration with an experienced integrator,” he said.

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