Automation Fair / Asset Management / Optimization

Food & Beverage Forum: Customer is king

Processors must respond to demands ranging from better automation to more pouches and the power of social media

By Paul Studebaker, editor in chief, Control

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Food & Beverage may be unique among the process industries in the power of the customer. Along with common motivators like optimizing assets, meeting regulatory requirements and reducing risks, food processors must also consider the impact of rapidly changing consumer preferences, from food tastes and types to the consequences of a news story about E.coli going viral on social media.

Along the way, shippers and retailers put pressure on your packaging and pricing, weighing in with their own requirements before they'll give you quick, safe delivery and space on the shelf.

Supply chain demands were the dominating theme of the Food & Beverage Forum at the Automation Fair event this week in Chicago, where Dave Sharpe, director, global consumer products industry, Rockwell Automation, kicked off the session presentations with a summary of the strengths of The Connected Enterprise, a common focus of this year's exhibits and presentations.

In short, connecting information technology (IT) and operations technology (OT) in a common, secure Ethernet infrastructure; collecting and analyzing plant-floor and related data to discover ways to improve operations; using cloud computing and virtualization to overcome hardware and software limitations; and deploying the resulting information effectively through HMIs, dashboards and mobile platforms offer significant potential gains.

"Connected Enterprises reduce downtime 50% and maintenance costs 40%," said Sharpe.

But fully 20% of food and beverage plants are completely offline, according to Randal Kenworthy, practice director, Cisco Systems. Others are only part of the way toward being fully connected enterprises, which are not only connected within the plant, but also between plants and to their supply chain and "ecosystem partners," Kenworthy said.

Connectivity with security is important because while "no one in this room has security in their top two priorities, attackers who want intellectual property have yours at the top of their list." Food and beverage companies are the top one or two targets, according to a Symantec survey of cyber attacks.

Bad food news travels fast

Food recalls have become much more common in recent years, and it's not because manufacturers or their products are getting worse. It's because information technology is getting better. "Consumers are empowered by social media and mobile devices," said Joe Whyte, global serialization lead, Rockwell Automation. "When an adverse occurrence happens, if you can't get ahead of the message, the message will get ahead of you." Processors must respond with fast, accurate recalls, but "paper-based systems can't support accurate recalls, so instead, the recalls are massive," Whyte said.

Food companies must have a way of cross-checking the sources of ingredients and how they were processed to pinpoint where defective products are and recall them, so they need both traceability and track-and-trace systems. "You have to know the genealogy—where raw materials came from, how they got into the plant, which silos they were stored in and when," Whyte said. Then you have to know the data from the plant floor: the process parameters and what happened there.

But there's a silver lining. "That data now lets you really understand your process, and drive efficiency improvements," Whyte said. "You can't eliminate waste unless you know exactly where it is."

A GPS for manufacturers

When you fire up a GPS to find your way to a destination, you get exactly the information you need. If traffic backs up or you lose your way, the GPS calculates an alternative route and keeps you on your way. "Use the GPS to inspire the way you design HMIs," said Alan Stanfill, MES group manager, Stone Technologies. Give users the information they need and can use to take action, not motion pictures of bottles on a conveyor belt. Maintenance, operations and management are different, and need different information.

"The maintenance supervisor wants to see downtime events—how many, how often and how long," Stanfill said. "He wants to see reasons—everything that happened around the event—and needs to be alerted when an event occurs." We have appointment alarms on our smartphones, why not use the same approach in industry?

Operators should get guidance, just like drivers get from a GPS. "Present them information they can use to make decisions, such as a bunch of gauges where everything is green unless it needs attention," Stanfill said. "Give it to them in terms they can understand the same way you understand an automobile speedometer, fuel gauge and indicator lamps. They don't need to see the engine diagnostics." Do they need to know upstream and downstream conditions? All the time or a few times a day? "We too often make beautiful screens that give people lots of information they can't act on. Instead, make something useful for the operator. It takes longer to plan, but do it."

On a GPS, operators need to know where to turn and maintenance needs to figure out how to get around a problem, but management mainly wants to know where you're going and how long it will take to get there.

"You expect your mobile device to get you to the airport, so do it in manufacturing," Stanfill said. Show management how to make groups work better together, find areas of improvement and have a more effective morning huddle by presenting KPIs like overall equipment effectiveness, production, quality and availability in simple, color-coded charts. "If they're all green, that's OK. If not, they can see where to dig in," he said. Give them shift-to-shift variations and mobile dashboards, and make them the same on a PC, tablet or phone, like a GPS.

"The system itself gives zero business return," Stanfill said. "It's the decisions they make, the actions they take. Don't clutter up their world, give them the information they need."

Package to sell

Suddenly, food store shelves are filling with pouches, displacing cans and jars for products ranging from dishwasher detergent to dog and baby food. It's partly because pouches are low-cost, reclosable and look good, but it's also because retailers want them.

"Walmart is driving this packaging innovation because they want their shelves to look nicer, and they want to stock their shelves more quickly," said Rick Gessler, director of marketing and strategic accounts, Delkor Systems. "But what happens to packaging machinery? Processors have to replace their end-of-line packaging machinery."

In the past, packaging systems evolved slowly as the needs of the plant changed. This time, change is being driven by retailers and consumers. "The driver is external," Gessler said. "It's not your cost or efficiency. The customer is king, the retailer wants certain shelf heights, case counts and shelf appearance. Distributors care how you ship—whether they can use clamp or conventional fork trucks. You need to get all parties involved and collaborate."

Today's solution may change tomorrow, so packaging machinery has to be flexible and easy to reconfigure. Delkor's machines convert quickly from shelf-ready to standard shippers in less than 10 minutes without tools.

Similarly, Cama has designed its latest cartoner machine using the Rockwell Automation iTrak intelligent track and transport system. It has mover units on the track that can be independently controlled, so size changeovers can be done quickly via menus and software instead of manual adjustments. William Goodman, managing director, Cama, said, "Simplified control, a single source of controls and iTrak result in an operator-friendly machine with about half the footprint of a conventional cartoner."