Why edge computing is an essential ingredient for food and beverage industry digital transformation

By Paolo Colombo, market director for Machine Builder and System Integrators at Schneider Electric.

The food and beverage sector is adopting digitised processes to address common industry pain points. This includes improving the supply chain through data collection, visibility, and traceability to optimise product-to-market processes and improve overall quality. Digitalisation makes this possible through the use of intelligent devices and sensors that collect data from equipment and processes. Yet to successfully collect, manage, and analyse different types of Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) data, food and beverage manufacturers need edge computing solutions.

Edge computing supports digitalisation by placing compute power, storage, and analytics close to data sources and their users. It reduces latency and enables the management of massive amounts of IIoT data in real-time. As such, edge computing enables digitalisation by helping organisations drive efficiencies at each step of the supply chain, from farms to manufacturing to distribution to retail sites.

The benefits of digital transformation

Operational and efficiency improvements in food and beverage are overdue, considering the findings of a recent Gartner study that 87% of food and beverage organisations are seriously lagging in analytics and business intelligence capabilities. When digitalisation is implemented effectively, food and beverage companies stand to realise significant gains in these three areas:

  1. Maximising asset value –Investments in Internet of Things (IoT) technology and data analytics can help reduce organisations’ capital expenses by lengthening asset lifecycles. Sensors placed on systems and equipment provide a continuous flow of data about health and performance, enabling predictive maintenance. This makes it possible to run equipment at peak performance and extend lifecycles.
  2. Improving operations –Food and beverage companies have to track millions of data points as the number of stock-keeping units (SKUs) they manage rapidly grows. Much of the SKU-related data, including information on packaging lines, requires real-time processing, which is why they need digital technologies to improve efficiency, profitability, and yield.
  3. Managing quality and compliance –Data collected from supply chain processes is critical to tracking product quality and regulatory compliance. Companies have to be transparent about their food sources, and this requires granular levels of traceability throughout the supply chain. In fact, 53% of food and beverage manufacturers plan to implement new technologies to manage supply chains.

How industrial edge computing solutions enable digitised processes

The benefits of process digitalisation in food and beverage are clear, but there are some challenges. The biggest involves how to process and analyse data in real time to maintain quality and regulatory compliance. To address this challenge, organisations need the visibility and traceability delivered by industrial edge computing solutions.

Tracking the supply chain from beginning to end is absolutely critical. Consider a dairy operation that needs to trace the journey of milk, starting at the milking facility and then winding its way through pasteurisation, bottling, transport, and delivery. Digital technologies such as bar codes can track the whole journey, allowing the milk producer to make quick adjustments as necessary. If there is a bottleneck in production, the company can correct it. If the consumption of chocolate milk goes up, the company can boost production.

Digitalisation also enhances productivity by streamlining processes and lowers costs through predictive maintenance. On the maintenance front, data collected from production equipment can help operators anticipate failure. That way, they can schedule maintenance before a machine can cause downtime, and do it when it will not interrupt production. The preventive approach also eliminates reliance on calendar-based maintenance schedules, which can result in performing unnecessary maintenance tasks.

Edge computing shines in these situations. With so much data flowing in from the supply chain, it would take too long to process it all through the cloud when real-time decisions are necessary.

Addressing IT infrastructure challenges

Another challenge of digitalisation for food and beverage companies is space related. Finding room for the necessary IT equipment and infrastructure is not always easy, but edge computing solutions can address this problem. As they are easy to adapt to the available space, solutions may co-exist with machinery on the factory floor or reside in a separate room close to the production area.

As edge computing sites multiply, they require the same availability, resiliency, and redundancy as a traditional data centre because they are handling critical data. To be effective, edge computing solutions must be standardised, repeatable, and easy to deploy and configure. They also must be enabled with remote management to monitor performance, security, and availability. Schneider Electric, together with its strategic partners ― AVEVA, Dell/EMC, Cisco, Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Lenovo, Stratus Technologies, and others ― offer fully compatible solutions that give food and beverage companies ample choices of IT/OT equipment for digitalisation.

Why the EcoStruxure Micro Data Center is a fit for food and beverage manufacturing

EcoStruxure™ Micro Data Center solutions address space issues by delivering flexibility and portability. Think of them as pre-integrated, enclosed rack systems with all necessary edge computing components, including servers, storage/networking, power, etc. Available in various shapes and sizes, these enclosures can be placed on the factory floor or nearby, providing the same level of availability, security, and reliability as a traditional data centre.

All the IT equipment and infrastructure is connected, giving IT administrators and plant managers anytime/anywhere visibility and remote management capabilities. EcoStruxure Micro Data Center solutions are repeatable so they can be deployed quickly in virtually the same way every time, anywhere across the globe. As such, they can be an essential component of the digital strategy for food and beverage companies.

This article was first published in the December 2021/January 2022 issue of Food & Beverage Asia.