Beefing up your food and beverage manufacturing facility with automation and digital technologies

By James Chae, vice-president of industrial automation, East Asia and Japan at Schneider Electric

Why have many food and beverage firms increased their investment in digital transformation? Public perception in the press seems to be that digitising operations allows a traditional industry to appear more modern. The reality, however, is far from that. The deeper story is that industry thought leaders recognise the power of digitisation to bring producers and consumers much closer together. In fact, digitisation benefits enable food and beverage firms to demonstrate to consumers a higher level of agility and more precise control and traceability of the goods they purchase and consume.

Consumers now demand access to more data on the raw materials comprised in food and beverage products they buy. Specifically, they want to verify the provenance of these materials and whether they have been processed in a safe and sustainable manner. Therefore, a new mentality for remaining in business has emerged: accelerate the push to digital transformation. Digital solutions offer food and beverage enterprises a path for achieving the end-to-end product and process traceability requirements that customers seek. Through opening up access to data, digital solutions help plant management accurately gauge raw materials availability and traceability across food processing, storage, and delivery life cycles.

Early adopters of digitisation found themselves in a much better position to remain resilient and to compete. The ability to quickly alter production lines to better accommodate sudden surges in demand for particular products like soft drinks, flour, soups and canned beans, has proven to be an asset to organisations caught in the vortex of rapid marketplace changes. In such an environment, building a resilient business enables supply chain continuity, improved food safety, and easier traceability

Three food and beverage digital transformation success strategies

Although no one can predict the future of food and beverage manufacturing, a number of strategies can serve as effective enablers for organisations keen on building up their resilience and agility through digital transformation. An example is Molinos Florencia Argentina, a South American producer of wheat flour for domestic and export markets, which deployed digitisation-enabled strategies to better manage their grain flour production facilities. The following are some highlights of their digital implementation:

  1. Use of an Integrated Control Automation system to facilitate engineering and programming – Molinos Florencia was commissioning a new mill with a production capacity of 300 tons of flour per day. It required an open systems architecture that enabled seamless integration of batch and historian software and an easy integration between devices, control systems and supervisory systems. Through a Schneider Electric and AVEVA Integrated Control Automation system, library-based system configuration and engineering approaches were used to increase the benefits of collaboration and reduce the time it took to engineer and modify control systems during project design phases.

The ability of engineers to encapsulate and reuse coded objects allowed the sharing of objects across disparate systems. In fact, a combination of application, system and device/resource models enabled the application to be designed independently of the underlying automation hardware. Applications can thus be distributed across heterogeneous devices without additional programming effort, and those devices can interoperate following standardised communications and data models across networks. This single change can decrease engineering cost and commissioning time by up to 20%.

  • Seek out MES tools that better Integrate control systems – New software tools, such as the Schneider Electric Manufacturing Execution System (MES) for CPG and Batch & Recipe Management – a complete control and supervisory system that enables remote control and monitoring of widely distributed, linked assets – increased Molinos Florencia’s operational efficiency by allowing operators to make faster, error-free process decisions while maintaining the system’s integrity. By accessing data flow, operators see a complete picture of plant and network operations, enabling them to manage continuous improvement while providing the flexibility to adapt to changing market demands. Such agility can lower operations cost by up to 20% through saved workforce hours and optimised production.
  • Align with the right partners – In the new digital world, the role of systems integrators with expertise in industrial automation becomes highly important. In the case of Molinos Florencia, the digitisation solutions were implemented by local Schneider Electric Alliance Partner, Aumax, who performed the tight control systems integration. This enabled Molinos Florencia to initiate nimble reconfiguration in response to changing new product development (NPD) needs and inventory levels. In deploying their new system, the Molinos Florencia team experienced 20% faster engineering and programming. Consequently, product quality and traceability met both compliance requirements and maintain preparedness in the case of food recalls.

Technology manufacturers, like Schneider Electric, have established global networks of such certified Alliance Partners. These are independent businesses staffed by engineers accredited to work within specialised technology environments and specific industry segments, and are sponsored by the local in-country Schneider Electric management teams.

As food and beverage value chains transform, more affordable smart manufacturing and logistics systems will enable raw materials origin traceability, the tracking of products in distribution, and the analysis of data for both operational improvement and ecommerce purposes. The beneficiaries will be not only be consumers who are better informed regarding the products they buy and consume, but also the manufacturers who can cut operational costs while building deeper customer relationships.

This article was first published in the February/March 2022 issue of Food & Beverage Asia.