Digitalisation In The Midst Of A Pandemic

Monday, March 21st, 2022

The food and beverage industry is primed for disruption and innovation right now. The industry trend towards automation and digitalisation has only been accelerated by the ongoing pandemic.

Many businesses are facing challenges operating in this constantly evolving climate. Workforce shortages have proved to be an impediment to production flow for many manufacturers and producers. Increasing regulations and the rapidly changing demands of the end consumer are also key concerns for a business that wishes to stay current, and be future-proof.

Digitalisation could be the key to thriving rather than just surviving. 

According to Yokogawa’s Head of Digital Innovation Consulting, a market survey of the global process industry indicated that 70 percent of companies will transform their business into autonomous operations by 2023. Autonomous operations address current challenges such as workforce shortages. Digitalisation is the driver of autonomous operations. 

Digitalisation is not new to the industry. In 2018, we wrote about its benefits to the industry – enabling employee empowerment and enhancing traceability in the production process.

How well then has the F&B industry embraced digitalisation, especially to address challenges brought about by the pandemic?

In our interactions with manufacturers, we hear of automation, enterprise resource planning, and other forms of digital and IT implementations. In this feature, we spoke to key players to find out the benefits, common roadblocks, and concerns facing a business that is undergoing the digital transformation process.

Digitalisation In A Dairy Manufacturing Company: A gradual Implementation

Ms Irenelle Medalla, R&D/QA Manager in Dairy Technologies Corporation shares her experience during the digitalisation journey. 

“The need for systemic digitalisation became a priority due to the emergence of the pandemic,” said Medalla. Dairy Technologies opted to convert their existing manual systems into a customised cloud-based workspace.

However, this conversion took months to complete and they had to find solutions using current available data, previous experience and real-time feedback, to implement the changes gradually. Over the past year, they were eventually able to increase the efficiency of their production lines and their sales figures grew significantly.

We asked Yokogawa’s digitalisation consultants – Dr Darius Ngo and Ms Alicia Hui – to provide their insights and dispel any myths around digitalisation.

Due to COVID-19, many F&B manufacturers worry about the learning curve of digitalisation and the drop in profits during the period of migration to a new system. How can companies overcome these challenges?

Dr Darius Ngo – Senior Vice President, Digital Enterprise Solutions, Yokogawa Engineering Asia

The example given by Dairy Technologies Corporation is a great summary and starting point. Digitisation of their manual process is a transformative start. With data they collect, they can begin to analyse where to increase efficiency of production lines. Taking a gradual approach to change and working with various functions to overcome roadblocks were probably fundamental to their successful implementation. 

There are several areas to consider when embarking on digitalisation, but I will just briefly cover four here.

It is a journey. First, the approach towards digitalisation is a journey and not a one-off implementation. I believe many F&B manufacturers have misconceptions on this approach.

People matters. Second, it cannot be seen as a technological implementation alone. Digitalisation has a broad impact even if only applied to production automation. It cannot be done in isolation. From our experience, it is strongly tied to people matters. Sustaining the effort and achieving continuous success at every stage requires backing from senior management and deliberate communications to the workforce.

Build a roadmap and celebrate small wins: Third, you must know your current state in order to determine your starting point, the areas to focus on, and to plot a roadmap to ensure what you implement today can be compatible to what you envision for the future. A roadmap will also help you identify areas of immediate wins and track your progress in achieving the intended ROI. 

No “one-size-fits-all”. Fourth, your technological implementation has to make business sense. For you to see the effectiveness of your initiative, your technological hardware and software have to integrate with the intricacies of your business and operations. What works for your competitors might not work for you. 

We observed many food manufacturers investing in automation and robotics. These are great initiatives to lessen the reliance on production workers, especially in this pandemic. Many of these businesses stop at that. However, Yokogawa sees that as starting points for digitalisation.

The opportunities are many and we understand that the industry has to take care of its bottom line. This is our approach – transformation not for its own sake but for the future of your business.

To assist businesses in overcoming these challenges, Yokogawa is offering support through an SM/DX Assessment (Smart Manufacturing Digital Transformation Assessment). We utilise SIRI Methodology to help customers look into 16 dimensions to identify where your gaps are, and customise progressive “change” approaches when transiting to the digitalisation phases.

Ms Alicia Hui – General Manager, Head of Digital Innovation Consulting, Digital Enterprise Solutions, Yokogawa Engineering Asia

Similarly, to mitigate the learning curve of digital transformation for your employees, change must start from the top management and flow downwards into all aspects of the business. Start by establishing a clear vision and solid business case (benefit justification). Develop a roadmap and appoint transformational leaders and change agents. A strong coordination throughout all levels of the organisation, and a comprehensive integration and alignment of IT-OT, are key aspects for a successful migration. Lastly, by building a culture of constant learning and supporting change and innovation, you will be able to sustain the transformational process.

‘Don’t fix what’s not broken’ is a common mentality among manufacturers who refuse to digitalise. What are the dangers of such a thought process in the long run, especially during this pandemic?

Dr Darius Ngo:

One benefit that digitalisation provides is the capability towards ‘Predictive Maintenance’, by leveraging detailed instrument insight. This technique, sometimes called “Condition-based Maintenance”, aims to help determine the condition of in-service equipment in order to predict when maintenance is necessary, in order to generate “cost-savings” over routine or time-based preventive maintenance. This task is usually embedded with a logical insight towards the cost of degradation state of an instrument against the overall production health in generating revenue if it breaks down; quite similar to an individual towards healthcare. Routine health checks will allow earlier diagnosis of any health conditions versus seeing a specialist only when you already contracted a critical illness.

This is especially valuable due to the disruptions caused by a long-drawn pandemic like the one we are going through. Rather than simply survive, a business can thrive by viewing challenges as opportunities. For example, the shifting focus towards dining-in more frequently, provides an opportunity for a food manufacturer to diversify and curate their product offerings accordingly. A condition-based predictive maintenance process removes some of the worries of unforeseen equipment downtime, so you may confidently modify the production process.

Equipment well-being is just one part of the equation of a well-functioning factory floor. A food manufacturer can truly unlock business opportunities when they have visibility of their production line. Central monitoring takes center stage especially with producers that have multiple plants in different locations. Digital systems help to gather and process vital data and provides business intelligence. When you know exactly which raw ingredient, in which plant, will be in excess or shortage, you can make the business decision to divert production to minimise loss.

Ms Alicia Hui:

A business that is disinclined to automate and digitise may suffer more safety and reliability issues, due to higher chance of human-error and inconsistencies in manual operations. In high-traffic areas, this may also cause non-compliance of safe-distancing measures, resulting in risk of infection and product contamination. A heavy reliance on only human interventions for day-to-day operations, business analyses, and key decision-making, will create gaps and delays in recognising issues and opportunities alike. Additionally, with an antiquated production system and process that no longer meets standards and expectations, it will be challenging to attract highly skilled new-age personnel to push the business forward. This eventually contributes to inefficiencies, unhappy partners and customers, and a loss of competitiveness against more digital-ready competitors.

Photo Courtesy Of Yokogawa Photo Courtesy Of Yokogawa

With the ongoing pandemic, businesses are facing logistical issues as worker numbers are restricted. How will digitalisation solve these problems?

Dr Darius Ngo

One area of digitalisation is leveraging robotics to support a more autonomous operation (monitoring and analytics). Our European counterparts are way ahead of us in this arena, both in terms of adoption and the technological enhancements. You can see robots used in various food production processes like harvesting, picking, and sorting.

Obviously, the applications vary with the type of production. A complex production process naturally comes with more challenges. We envision a factory floor run fully by robotics, but the reality is that robots such as grippers cannot handle delicate produce. We are more likely to utilise automated equipment that can sense, weigh, analyse, control, slice and clean. Less manpower is required – so that production is more precise and efficient, and risk of contamination is reduced.

Another interesting application lies in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning (AI/ML) solutions that you can put in place on the production floor to alert if safe distancing is not observed. This is in the area of HSE. 

Fundamentally what digitalisation opens up for the industry is in data mining. Applications that are usually embedded with AI/ML intelligence, help to provide more comprehensive information (in visuals or analytics) to the end-user by leveraging BIG DATA to resolve/assist in problem solving, such as quality, wastage, traceability and compliance.

These are all various forms of digitalisation and how it can mitigate the issue of worker shortages. As I mentioned, digitalisation is a progressive journey and not a “one-size-fits-all” solution.

Digitalisation presents a vast opportunity for businesses. It is more than just automation and robotics. We recommend staying current on news regarding digitalisation. New things are being explored every day and the pandemic acts as a catalyst. There are opportunities for cross-industry learning, especially from industries that are more advanced due to safety, compliance and environmental regulations. Digitalisation can be as basic as digitising your process, and as extensive as integrating data from your operations, business, sales, and supply chain. 

Start by reading more about how to assess your digital maturity before you embark on it. 

Source: Yokogawa Electric Corporation
Find out more at


How Has The Pandemic Forced Us To Adapt In The Food Manufacturing Industry?
Apollo Celebrates 175 Years
The Advantages Of Automated Food Packaging
Sustainable Decision
The Growing Trend Of Seeds: How Can Companies Benefit From Effective Processing?
Three Major Global Food Trends Identified In New 2022 Trend Report
ADM Unveils The Next Big Consumer Trends
Asia’s Beverage Industry Approaching A Tipping Point For Sugar Reduction Initiatives
Rise Of Alternative Beverages
Growing Popularity Of ‘Food As Medicine’ Concept Amongst Global Populations
Supporting Growing Consumer Health Needs With Fortified Food And Beverages

To not miss our exclusive articles, follow us on our social media platforms LINKEDIN, FACEBOOK, TWITTER