Many of these themes were highlighted at Siemens recent Digital Talks conference in Liverpool, where we were joined by a number of major food retailers such as Ocado and Amazon, together with leading manufacturers such as Princes foods, and food packaging specialists such as TrakRap.
These and others discussed the emerging trends, opportunities and challenges of automation, digitalisation and Industry 4.0 issues with food and beverage.
Take for example mass customisation, an area set to be huge within food manufacturing which is being primarily driven by a rapidly changing retail environment.
Today online food shopping sees you the customer putting your individual data into a system which the retailer then uses to offer you more of what you like in the future.
In contrast most bricks and mortar grocers are still having to try and anticipate what the majority of shoppers are interested in buying.
However, the rise of flash food trends, the ‘Delia effect’, foodie Instagrammers and the pronouncements of celebrity chefs means what’s hot today is on the discount shelf tomorrow, and this lack of agility and flexibility is a one of the key factors which is driving their decline.
That’s why increasingly food manufacturers and retailers are looking to what Industry 4.0 is doing in other sectors and seeing how it could be adapted to an F&B setting.
For example, in pharmaceuticals we’re seeing the evolution of personalised medicines; bespoke formulations specific to an individual’s condition based on their genetic makeup, health status and lifestyle.
If we take that proposition and apply it to food, you soon realise that through personal data and individual profiling we could soon see food manufacturers tasked with making one-off products, or a series of goods, which are unique to the customer.
You can then imagine manufacturers meeting special requirements such as nutritional needs, addressing conditions such as diabetes, or preparing whole ranges calibrated towards multiple food allergies, taste preferences and different dietary requirements within one household/
Such customisation could also be key to solving the problem of over-production. In food production currently we are wasting around 25% of crops, purely because we are creating products without a specific end-user in mind. Goods are being designed based on last year’s trends, and that’s just not going to satisfy the consumer who is constantly changing their preferences.
The only way to conquer this is with real-time data collection. Not only will this help manufacturers more accurately forecast what is going to happen in the supply chain, it will also give them access to individual customer needs, thereby ‘closing the loop’ on production.
Another key benefit to embedding smarter technology into the food and beverage supply chain is clearly traceability.
Client demand and legal compliance have made this issue one of the sector’s top priorities, and everything from carrying 100% accurate allergen information to detailing how recyclable the packaging is, means there is a need for consistent and robust labelling.
Product provenance is also crucial - and knowing the source of your ingredients and produce, and the journey they have taken from farm to fork, is increasingly a point of competitive difference with regards to customers.
Again, this is where data monitoring, analysis and tracking comes into the play, and I’m spending a lot time with Siemens’ food and beverage clients trying to get under the skin of their wider supply chains, both upstream and downstream, to asses where they are in terms of digitalisation.
But the principles of data collection and analysis to boost efficiencies, reduce waste and save on cost – even at a very basic level - can also be utilised on a food manufacturers’ factory floor.
Take for example Kinnerton’s Easter egg factory in Norfolk. They had a production line which featured a combination of different vendor technologies and machines, some of which were ageing and increasingly difficult to maintain.
Such a complex operation invariably led to performance issues as parts of the production line were unreliable. This is turn created challenges in maintaining product consistency, the efficiency of the line itself, and the need to support the entire automation platform.
Rather than rip and replace, Siemens took a retrofit approach and simplified the production line process via a Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) platform.
From initial chocolate mould filling to product cooling and packaging, a series of linked monitors integrated several different elements of Kinnerton’s line, including both fixed speed and variable speed machinery, into a single motion control system.
From simple conveyor belts to sophisticated ‘pick and place’ packing robots, streams of data linked to different manufacturing processes were fed into a central point, giving Kinnerton a real-time picture of the whole production process for the first time.
This relatively modest technological solution succeeded in boosting productivity on one line by 15%, and the ROI on the technology was quickly realised.
So, while the quest for mass customisation and ‘batch size one’ is an aspiration for many within the sector, I’d argue that for a great many food manufacturers even some rudimentary interventions could make a significant difference to productivity.
And once you begin this digitalisation journey, you can start to explore all of the other huge benefits that data capture and analysis can bring to your business.