Digital transformation returns step-change in efficiency

18 January 2022

To illuminate a process black hole, reduce environmental impact and achieve a 10% boost in Overall Equipment Efficiency (OEE), the Princes Group has undergone a digital transformation.

The Princes Group group has manufacturing facilities throughout the UK and Europe and today it is responsible for over 350 food and drink products from many household brands, alongside its own Princes’ branded range. 

Building upon an already established Industrial IT and software support relationship with SolutionsPT, Princes Group invited the company to help it advance its digital transformation journey. The brief was to help it adopt digital technologies that made a single version of the truth available for the measurement, management and control of all operations data and equipment. Initially, the project focused on a single site, but the solution needed to be capable of scaling to become the company’s blueprint for digital transformation throughout its global operations.

Julian Bolton, IT director at Princes Group, explains the intention behind the system upgrades: “Princes Group is committed to continuously reducing its environmental impact in all facets of food production. This covers everything from food waste to packaging and even includes the lighting we use in our factories. To meet this commitment, we needed to ensure that our unified operations were running as efficiently as possible. For us, this required modernising from outdated, siloed paper-based systems to create a consistent, accessible and accurate digital thread that flows throughout the business.” 

A typical journey
A typical journey through the production process for a single product saw ingredients being brought together, cooked, sealed and palleted over a period of around two hours. This single process produced around 120 physical documents to constitute a report of the journey, which could have fallen victim to error and inaccuracy. 

The process also entailed a lot of repetitive, task-based, and time-consuming human input. While the system worked, it did not operate with the efficiency or accuracy required today.

The potential problems of a paper-based system are numerous – especially in the food manufacturing sector where the smallest variance of an ingredient quantity or the miss-labelling of a can could mean the loss of entire batches, resulting in the waste of production materials, energy, and time. Furthermore, without an accurate, integrated, digital system, disruptions to production or unplanned downtime can only be reported and assessed after the event and there is no guarantee that the true cause will be determined to prevent a repeat occurrence. 

“Everything we do has a sustainability focus – from removing plastic from multi-packs and cartons to wide-reaching initiatives – like working closely with authorities for the sustainable fishing of tuna in the Indian ocean. Integrating all of our machines and recipes into a single system almost entirely removes the issue of food waste when it comes to raw materials and helps ensure all production facilities are running as efficiently as possible,” said Bolton.

Complete overhaul
Working with SolutionsPT, Princes has achieved a complete overhaul of a previously manual process into an automated, digital environment capable of integrating into every other facet of the business. This offers short-term efficiency gains and a fast return-on-investment. 

The starting point for Princes Group was the AVEVA SCADA software platform which aligns with Princes’ goal of a single version of the truth, enabling secure viewing of enterprise-wide operations whether operators are in the control room, on the plant floor, or in a remote location, such as a global HQ.

Combining both archived historical data and real-time process data, this solution makes maintenance more efficient. It also makes adding new production lines or altering processes a simple task that can be undertaken using real-life data. 

A fundamental inclusion on the platform was deploying AVEVA’s model-driven Manufacturing Execution System (MES) and Historian which digitally maintains order effectiveness and quality within plant operations. It enables the standardisation of operational processes, equipment and activities which aligns with the goals of Princes when it comes to recipe management. The Historian measures and logs the performance of every machine in the facility faster than a standard database system at a fraction of conventional storage space.

With this solution in place, Princes Group can work from a single digital thread. The potential for inconsistencies in reporting and recipe management have been removed and no matter where the facility is located or what product is produced, the entire enterprise is working from a single version of the truth with the data and insight that enables the continuous efficiency improvements. 

Resolving challenges
Importantly, the new approach has helped Princes to resolve further challenges unique to food manufacturing. One such issue concerns the plethora of software environments that food manufacturers often need to move between to meet the requirements of their machine builders and their retail customers.

It is common for food manufacturers to work with a multitude of machine builders to meet the specific needs of different manufacturing processes. The standard protocol in these situations is to use the software environment provided by the OEM. This software is usually a standard solution for the machine builder and is often not tailored to the specific needs of the manufacturer. 

Similarly, further along the supply chain, major retailers often require food manufacturers to purchase their ecosystem software to streamline warehousing and supply. 

“As a supplier to retailers all over Europe, and with a long list of machine builders it wouldn’t make sense, or even be possible, to purchase or employ every system,” said Bolton. “By working with SolutionsPT and implementing AVEVA software, we are investing once, in a technology that future-proofs operations. This approach still meets every strict standard associated with food production, no matter if we are introducing a new machine or entering a new retail store. Working with SolutionsPT gives us an agnostic approach to hardware and software.” 

The Princes and SolutionsPT relationship is a long one. “Working with SolutionsPT throughout this long collaboration has brought many benefits. At the Long Sutton site, the result is a true digital transformation. Gone are the days of paper-based reporting and now our valued and skilled onsite operators have more time to focus on productivity-improving activities. We now have full visibility of the entire process at every stage, highlighting historic performance and providing the tools for improved maintenance and tackling downtime. Even planned downtime happens on schedule without any surprises, providing maximum uptime,” continued Bolton.  “The combination of AVEVA software and the expertise of SolutionsPT has created what we call Princes’ Perfect Flow. Not only were they heavily involved in the development of this system but they continue to be involved as we assess the future capabilities of this system. Princes’ Perfect Flow results in 10% increase in OEE as soon as it is implemented within a site.” 

The goal for Princes has always been to operate in the most efficient way, not for the benefit of the bottom line alone, but rather for the good of the environment and the people it employs. By reducing raw material waste, improving OEE and streamlining plant floor operations the company is harnessing the potential of digital transformation to deliver against each of those targets now, and long into the future. 

“The boost in OEE really is the icing on the cake for this solution and we have only scratched the surface of what is possible as a result of this implementation. The capabilities we now have at our fingertips mean we can continue our mission for sustainable operations,” concluded Bolton.

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