As the loaves are carried on conveyor belts towards automated slicers and wrappers, someone on the line spots that something isn’t quite right with the product.
Upon further investigation its revealed that an unusually cold night has seen the factory drop a couple of degrees more than anticipated, and as a result the dough hasn’t reached its optimum proving temperature of 34 degrees and therefore hasn’t risen sufficiently.
The entire batch is ruined, the morning delivery is delayed, customers are very unhappy, and the entire production process is now off-schedule.
In incredibly thin-margin sectors like baked goods and confectionary this type of situation can be all too common and yet many manufacturers chalk it up to bad luck, or it simply being part of the job, before reverting to the same methods and processes they’ve always used.
But what if there was a way to ensure much higher consistency of product, eradicate conveyor belt collisions, prevent avoidable downtime caused by machine failure and cut energy costs by 30%?
Or what if there was a way to automatically adjust temperature and timings to match ambient conditions, day or night, without disrupting the whole operation?
And what if you could confidently say to a customer ‘yes’ when they ask if you could possibly start supplying trays, pallets or boxes of mixed products which were bespoke to their needs that week, or even that day?
The fact is that the technologies required to deliver such transformational changes with manufacturing are already here, and yet the food and beverage sector is one which is yet to fully embrace the potential of Industry 4.0.
The reasons for such resistance are understandable. Fear of disruption to what is considered an already highly optimised process is one of the main objections. The lack of a guaranteed and quick ROI is another, as is a concern that staff will not be skilled enough to maximise the investment in technology.
When you start to talk about monitoring equipment, and then linking them together via a remote interface to capture ‘big data’, then worries about cybersecurity risks are often added to the mix.
I also often get the sense that by embracing more digitalised production methods some manufacturers perceive they will experience a loss of ‘brand heritage’ or that they’ll be abandoning traditions and methods which go back generations.
But in my experience once you can get a food manufacturer to invest in some initial equipment monitoring which immediately starts to calculate where productivity gains can be made, where energy costs can be cut, and how you can reduce the amount of downtime through more predictive maintenance, then the wider potential of digitalisation becomes that bit clearer.
This is also the point when you can start to talk to food and beverage manufacturers about some of the incredible applications and new processes which are starting to emerge.
Much of this is being driven by changes in the supply chain, where logistics-based technology and different connectivity systems are disrupting the way products are being ordered, processed, held, picked and distributed.
At Siemens’ Digital Talks conference held in Liverpool earlier this year we had the likes of Ocado and Amazon demonstrating this shift towards more mass customisation and on-demand food retailing, and inevitably such changes will impact on the way the food is produced.
Digitalisation can help address this. For example, if you look at the traditional approach to new product development you have to consider not only the product R&D stage for the formulation but then consider the challenges of commercially viable scale-up of production, packing and distribution.
The amount of ‘known unknowns’ are numerous: How many can we make an hour? What might the demand be, and how can we meet it? Will we actually have enough margin to make any money on this?
And so on.
You’ll also be wrestling with packaging design, labelling, branding and other activities which come with financial risk and logistical headaches.
Digitalisation can streamline this entire scenario; visualising every stage, testing and ratifying different options, stress-testing the business model and mapping out the most efficient production process end-to-end.
We call this the ‘digital thread’ which runs through every part of the product development cycle. It helps you to base decisions on robust evidence rather than rough estimates, and if you need to go back and tweak different elements to achieve a more cost-effective or higher margin result you can.
Another area where Industry 4.0 can make a massive difference within food and beverage is with regards to compliance and product provenance.
Goods involving high levels of sugar, soft drinks and baked goods are all subject to tight regulations and the issue of food allergens – from both a labelling and quality control perspective – is very high on the F&B agenda.
This impacts on every aspect of the food and beverage production process.
From needing to develop new formulations to reduce the levels of sugar, salt and fat to ensuring that every batch produced can be fully tracked and traced in terms of the provenance of its ingredients, so manufacturers need to become more agile and responsive to change.
Take the example of a business having to respond to the sugar tax and working on a new formulation that they hope will taste the same in order to keep loyal customers happy.
While all the attention is going on in the development kitchen, more often than not no-one has considered how a new, lower-sugar version of the product might behave within the existing production set-up. The melting point might be lower, the viscosity might be different, and it could take significantly longer to solidify.
Suddenly the pipes which achieved a consistently smooth flow are becoming clogged, the curing time has increased, and the cost per unit has skyrocketed. Delays in production also has a knock-on effect with your customer, and suddenly the entire product line has become commercially unviable.
But if you had taken a ‘Digital Twin’ approach, you could have developed the lower-sugar version in a virtual factory, and you could have anticipated how it would flow and how long it would take to set.
You could have replaced every (virtual) pipe with a wider one, or set them at different angles, and you could have adjusted the temperature of each stage of the process to achieve the curing time required.
You could also have run multiple scenarios, each with slightly different formulations, and could have continually optimised the production process in the digital world before committing to making changes in a physical environment.
However, I also appreciate that the idea of moving towards a more digitalised model of food and beverage manufacturing can seem quite daunting.
Concerns around how the Internet of Things (IoT) applied to a food setting can heighten cybersecurity risks is one obvious concern, and the fact that what you produce goes directly into the human food chain means that prevention of any tampering - physically or digitally- is paramount.
Mitigating such risks is also not unique to F&B, and Siemens is working across many manufacturing sectors to look at how ‘Edge’ processing - where raw performance data is analysed on the premises before being uploaded to a highly secure Cloud-based platform like Siemens’ Mindsphere operating system – could help bridge the gap between the factory floor and a remotely-based data interface.
Finally, as well as my bakery story with which I started this column, I often also point out that even a basic technological intervention can achieve impressive efficiency savings and generate measurable and meaningful ROI.
Take for example Kinnerton’s Easter egg factory in Norfolk. They had a production line which featured a combination of different technologies, some of which were ageing and difficult to maintain. This led to performance issues and created challenges in maintaining product consistency.
They sought a solution based on retrofit rather than ‘rip and replace’, so we explored a Totally Integrated Automation (TIA) approach. This saw a series of monitors which integrated several elements of a Kinnerton line into a single motion control system, giving Kinnerton a real-time picture of the whole production process for the first time.
By seeing more clearly where they had capacity, why the bottlenecks were occurring, and how out of sync many of their production processes were, they were able to improve productivity on the line by 15%, which represented a massive saving.
Of course, Kinnerton didn’t think this was them embracing ‘Industry 4.0’, it was just them optimising one of their lines through some clever little boxes with the word ‘Siemens’ stamped on them.
But I’d argue that what we did with Kinnerton is the same first step on the digitalisation journey that many of the UK’s F&B manufacturers should be considering. Once you take it, who knows where it might lead...