Brad Yager, director of strategy for industry automation at Schneider Electric, takes a look at how food and beverage companies can drive end-to-end visibility and efficient operations through digitalisation.

Today’s consumer is demanding, sophisticated and, yes, impatient. Buyers know what they want – and they want it now. For food and beverage producers, this creates an urgent need to become more agile and responsive to market demands.

The food and beverage industry is overdue for operational and efficiency improvements. A recent Gartner study reveals that 87 per cent of food and beverage organisations are seriously lagging in analytics and business intelligence capabilities. Food and beverage producers’ success in the digital future depends on making smart investments today.

That’s why companies need to invest in Industry 4.0 technologies and practices, such as industrial edge computing and Internet of Things (IoT) systems. These would allow them to converge information technology (IT) and operational technology (OT) systems, automate the supply chain and production systems, and increase visibility across the production process by capturing and analysing data to drive operational improvements.

Too many silos

Traditionally, food and beverage manufacturing has relied on silo-based infrastructures. That means running standalone solutions deployed in different areas of the plant that don’t communicate with each other.

Brad Yager, director of strategy for industry automation at Schneider Electric.
Brad Yager, director of strategy for industry automation at Schneider Electric.

Legacy systems use outdated supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) solutions that lack the visibility, data collection and remote management capabilities that modern environments demand. These systems still rely heavily on manual processes to monitor equipment, review production performance and perform other tasks, increasing the chances of error and potential for downtime.

To gain agility, food and beverage producers need to centralise industrial automation systems supported by edge computing networks that place processing and analysis closer to users for real-time tasks. Investing in Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) technology will help them gain visibility across their operations, from the point of intake through production to filling to packaging and shipping. This type of visibility can significantly help improve quality control, avoid contamination, and prevent downtime.

For instance, remote monitoring platforms that issue alerts when a machine shows signs of malfunction enables plant operators to take quick action to avoid downtime. Data that is collected and stored for later review also reveals insights into operations that can be used for predictive maintenance, which is more cost-effective and efficient than calendar-based maintenance schedules.

Digitalisation and automation drivers

One of the biggest trends driving automation and digitalisation in food and beverage is the need for speed. Increasingly, producers have to pivot automatically to address market demands for new – even individualised – products.

Popular food and beverage companies have modernised production facilities to gain the flexibility to make product changes without having to shut down production lines for changeovers. For example, a peanut butter or spread manufacturer can let customers order personalised jars with their names on them. Soda companies can make quick changes in production to accommodate an extensive menu of drink flavours.

Another major trend involves food safety and traceability, giving producers a full view into the supply chain and production. The ability to track everything from the ingredients’ suppliers to production, down to delivery is crucial. If contamination occurs anywhere along the process, a producer wants to quickly pinpoint where it occurred and why. If there is a product recall, a company needs to swiftly consult production records, see where and what caused the problem, and fix it before it has a major impact on the public and its brand.

Traceability also improves the relationship with the consumer. Buyers want information about their products, including ingredients, nutrition scores, allergens and environmental impact. Providing that information builds brand trust with consumers.

Boosting profitability in a thin margin industry

The need to improve profitability is also driving 4IR investments in food and beverage. The industry’s notoriously thin margins have only increased the incentive for companies to modernise and adopt new technologies to increase efficiency and productivity. Supply chain and production improvements can have a substantial impact on the bottom line, so there is a major emphasis on avoiding mistakes and downtime.

Of course, competition is always fierce. Even for food and beverage market leaders, there’s always a competitor nipping at their heels to capture market space. Staying ahead of the competition and succeeding in the digital future requires making a strong commitment today to 4IR.

This article was first published in the November-December 2021 print issue of PKN Packaging News, on page 7 of the Machinery Matters supplement.

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