When Bytes Meet Bites

Thursday, August 16th, 2018

What does the Industrial Internet of Things mean for the food and beverage industry? By Dominique Stucki, head of MES operations, ABB, Switzerland.

What do food and beverage plants produce in large quantities—besides food and beverage, of course? The answer is digital data. With virtually every device today having some level of digitisation, there is electronic data literally everywhere. Collecting and analysing it can unlock information about every aspect of the process as well as of the condition and performance of the equipment. However, in many cases, much of this data remains on the factory floor, marooned in so-called “islands of information”. But all this is changing.

The food and beverage industry is facing a plethora of challenges. These include the unrelenting drive for greater profitability through better utilisation of assets and inventory, the addressing of production bottlenecks as well as the tightening of regulatory demands for greater traceability of products and ingredients. All of these requirements can be met through transparency and access to timely and actionable information.

The degree of automation of a plant may vary from factory to factory, and even between installations within the same site. Disparate systems reflecting different designs, ages and manufacturers present a variety of data protocols. Information is rarely shared automatically, and data gathering, inventory and analysis remain slow and manual tasks. Such manual collection of data not only implies delays but also raises concerns over the quality of the data as errors are easily made and difficult to detect.


Sharing Knowledge, Building Predictability

In this digitised age, virtually every device in a factory relates to forms of electronic data. Every sensor, every actuator and every controller is continuously generating, consuming or processing electronic information. But although the devices themselves are more digital than their predecessors, it remains the Achilles’ heel of process plants that information is often not suitably shared or analysed. The most important enabler of change in this area is the Internet of Things (IoT).

Just like the conventional Internet, IoT enables communications between disparate devices for a range of different purposes. One important concern in a food and beverage plant is keeping track of inventory and equipment. For example, an employee’s misjudgement might lead to the wrong ingredient being added to a mixer, or the right ingredient added in the wrong quantity or at the wrong time, or incompatible ingredients being mixed. Such errors can be avoided if a positive identification of the ingredient is required before it is added, for example by an employee scanning a bar code on the package using a handheld scanner—or even better, by using an intelligent device on the ingredient’s container permitting it to “talk” directly to the mixer.

Attempted incorrect actions can lead to an alarm being raised or, better still, to the action being disallowed completely (for example by an access flap refusing to open).

This not only means that incorrect or expired ingredients can be excluded from the process, but also that the exact provenance and history of any ingredient can be instantly traced, making it easier to identify precise batches and even individual units in case of safety incidents. Without this traceability, far larger quantities would have to be recalled, leading to a greater waste of resources and financial damage as well repercussions for a company’s reputation.

Besides the ingredients, the status of the equipment itself can be tracked. By maintaining knowledge of when a piece of equipment, for example, the mixer mentioned previously, was last washed and keeping track of which ingredients have been mixed in it since, a plant can on the one hand avoid downtime and water use through unnecessary washing, while on the other hand, ensure there is no risk of contamination. This can include keeping better track of ingredients that may contain allergens and other special ingredients.

Traceability can also be extended to people. If equipment is aware of the identity of the human controlling it, operators can be excluded from equipment they are not qualified to work on. Such a system can also keep track of and remember which employees tended certain equipment or spent time in critical locations. If it is discovered subsequently, for example, that an employee was ill while at work, the ability to identify the areas and process steps where contamination could have occurred can help contain the damage and initiate a focused recall.

Besides safeguarding the quality of food, IoT can also improve the safety of employees. If an employee’s clothing contains embedded intelligence, this can talk to the IoTSP and verify that the employee is wearing the appropriate protective garments for his or her tasks. For example, certain tasks may require a hard hat while others may require breathing masks. The same method can also be used to ensure that clothes and tools have been cleaned appropriately and not used in a contaminated area or with incompatible ingredients.

With all devices within a plant sharing information in real time, management is able to oversee a plant’s activities and is able to plan them more effectively, as evidenced in the forthcoming case study.

Case Study: ABB To Deliver Increased Productivity For Leading Thai Beverage Company

In February 2018, a brewery belonging to a renowned beverage company in Thailand, automated its beer bottling line with ABB’s industry-leading palletising robotic automation system. Within 3 years’ time, the robotic system is expected to boost productivity by 20 percent.

High consumer standards are changing preferences towards premium quality beverages in Thailand, whose important $4.6 billion beer market is expected to grow by 2.6 percent annually over the next three years.


Taking Palletising To New Heights

One of the most repetitive, labour-intensive tasks in a brewery is the constant movement of beer bottles. Automating the palletising of newly filled bottles or the de-palletising of returned bottles has always been a challenge due to the bottles’ fragility—especially when moving at the high speeds required to improve productivity.

ABB’s solution for its customer included a turnkey high-speed palletising system with its IRB 660 robot equipped with two ‘plug-and-play’ flex gripper clamps that allow the robot to pick up to 24,000 bottles an hour. ABB determined that short cycle times with high acceleration values were needed to delicately handle the bottles, despite the fast throughput. This meant the system needed quick and precisely-coordinated motion sequences, which were managed through ABB’s specific palletising applications and RobotStudio simulation and offline programming software.

For each new cycle, the robot picks up new bottles from their crates and places them on a conveyor belt, then removes the top sheet, and then returns the bottles to the crates. The other gripper picks up the returned beer bottles from their crates and places them onto empty pallets which are then placed on a conveyor belt.


Popping Open Productivity

Before the ABB robotic system was installed, the job of moving bottles was performed manually by a team of five operators. The repetitive work of lifting 12 bottles at a time by each operator compared with 240 bottles at a time by the IRB 660 is helping increase the brewery’s productivity. Moreover, the workers were released from physically demanding, repetitive work to focus on more rewarding tasks. This is helping the customer gain competitive edge and aligning with the Thailand 4.0 concept, a government-led policy to transform the Thai economy from being industry-driven to an innovation- and technology-driven one in order to bring the country forward.


Want more insider news? Subscribe to our e-book now!