Digitalisation For Food And Beverage: Taking the First Steps

The combination of low-cost sensors, robust communication networks and cloud computing has already had a visible impact on a variety of industries from manufacturing to financial services. Now a new group of industries is beginning to realise the benefits digitalisation can deliver.

The food and beverage industry is unlike other sectors in that it is really a collection of different industries. Dairy, meat, brewing—each has its own requirements and challenges, and one size definitely does not fit all when it comes to technology. However, there are some fundamental commonalities across F&B.

The marketplace is highly competitive, and margins are typically thin, so prospective capex projects receive a high level of scrutiny. Investing in digitalization must show a clear and rapid payback. Spending on “extras” must be deemed mission-critical or be tied to a corporate initiative. On top of this, F&B companies may lack dedicated staff with the required skills to implement digitalisation projects.

The typical F&B plant is 30-50 years old and has only rudimentary, isolated pockets of automation limited to PLCs and SCADA systems. Many still rely on spreadsheets and paper production schedules.

One large poultry producer ABB has worked with, for example, uses robotics in only one-quarter of its dozens of facilities, but even those installations were more the result of historical decisions made locally rather than a company-wide strategy.

Another challenge has arisen as a result of industry consolidation as larger F&B firms face a tremendous challenge in trying to reconcile the wide range of facilities now under their control. This is particularly evident in plants’ approach to automation in general and digitalisation in particular.

Getting Started

It might be tempting to leapfrog directly to state-of-the-art digital technology, but this is not advised, nor is it necessary to realize tangible benefits.

A better option is to start with plant assessments to better understand your status quo, from power and materials coming into palletized finished product going out.

Then you can begin to take actions based on the company’s growth strategy that will yield tangible results. For any F&B operation that relies on information in hard copy, for example, it might start with something as simple as storing that information electronically. No more binders. But it’s important to begin with a clear definition of the business’ needs, set a baseline of current operations, and work on optimising that before introducing new equipment or processes.

Digitalization involves three broad steps that can be summarized as:

Sensing refers to gathering data, which many companies are already doing. The next step in digitalization has to do with extracting value from that data via analysis. Examples include process historians, energy (WAGES) consumption measurement and condition monitoring. The goal here is to leverage the raw data with specific applications that will deliver actionable intelligence to plant management.

The last step is to act on that intelligence. This involves moving beyond the technological baseline to initiating projects that will change (and improve) how the company does business. Benchmarking, both within a plant and between facilities, is one example. Doing so provides a basis for identifying why some locations perform better than others (e.g., in quality control, supply chain management, energy use, etc.)

It’s important to note here that these sense-analyse-act loops can operate on a wide range of timescales from real-time process adjustments to monthly plant performance reviews.

Candidates for digitalisation:

A few suggested areas where digitalization can have a timely and substantial impact:

Plant electrical systems are a good point of departure for companies embarking on their digitalisation journey. The power supply impacts everything else in the plant, and understanding energy use is one of the easiest ways to identify opportunities for cost savings. Smart circuit breakers and transformer monitoring can help.

Robotics are another obvious choice, especially in packaging. In larger firms, there might be good examples that can be propagated to other facilities.

Condition monitoring (e.g., using thermal and vibration sensors) is a good way to move from time-based to proactive, predictive maintenance, and an excellent way to address rising O&M costs.

ABB’s expertise in every segment, from sugar production to beverage bottling, means they understand that everyone’s needs are different. They take the time to get to know your business and unique challenges before providing our recommendations.

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