Digitalisation: The Ingredient That Will Elevate Food Manufacturing

Monday, December 14th, 2020

Food fads come as quickly as they go, with social media driving trends in shorter, but quicker, bursts. Food manufacturers must be able to move fast to capitalise on increased demand, or be forced to play catch up with their competitors.

The business of food has changed drastically in the last decade. Consumers want food items fresher, faster and more varied. From production and processing, to packaging and delivery, evolving consumer preferences have driven food producers to innovate, especially in areas such as speed of fulfilment and governance in food safety. Digitalisation has been instrumental in allowing manufacturers to address these needs. Now, with COVID-19 upending global supply chains, manufacturers have been forced to accelerate digitalisation across all their processes, using data to improve areas of operation including cost efficiency and transparency.


Innovate Consistently, Manufacture Swiftly

Food fads come as quickly as they go, with social media driving trends in shorter, but quicker, bursts. Food manufacturers must be able to move fast to capitalise on increased demand, or be forced to play catch up with their competitors.

However, these innovations can only be profitable if manufacturers are able to get products on racks in a cost-effective manner. In addition to consideration of the product R&D stage for formulation, manufacturers also have to consider the challenges of commercially viable production, packing and distribution when it comes to new product development—what is the production capacity of single machines or components? How many machines are needed per single packaging step? What influences will short malfunctions have on the overall process and efficiency? What will be the opportunity cost of redistributing capacity from existing hero product lines? 

Additionally, with the COVID-19 pandemic placing further restrictions—such as manpower and capacity—on production, how will manufacturers be able to deliver on production while operating on a labour crunch and complying to social distancing rules?  

Unlocking the balance across production capacity and speed of innovation will require an accurate production schedule—with visibility on progress of orders, as well as the factory’s short-, medium- and long-term workload visibility. This schedule needs to be supported by a flexible production facility, so manufacturers can quickly conceptualise and perfect the innovations with minimum development cost.  


Delivering Quality Assured Products With Reliable & Accurate Manufacturing Processes

Even as food sources become increasingly varied, manufacturers are responsible for ensuring that all output is safe for consumption. Government bodies across the world are mandating greater visibility across the production cycle to ensure that food produced at held to the highest standards of safety and quality. 

Take for example the production of bread. The dough has to go through a fermentation process in order for it to rise. Manufacturers need to be able to accurately replicate the fermentation conditions and environment consistently so that every piece can meet quality control requirements and proof to the right texture. Another key stage is the removal of humidity. Without an effective drying process, food with moisture left in it will have a shorter shelf life. To ensure that the product is safe for consumption for a longer period of time, food items have to be dried out evenly to the correct level, with a steady and precise level of warm airflow. In addition to that, manufacturers also have to ensure that machines used are able to accommodate a range of product spreading options and the ability to handle flavouring and coating so that there are no sticky residue left after the drying process that could compromise the level of hygiene.  

Industrial production also adds another dimension to the equation. What happens when unplanned machine downtime jeopardises the schedule of production? When freshness of ingredients is critical to assuring the quality and safety of produce, machine breakdowns could affect the entire production chain, causing pre-assembled products or ingredients to go bad. This could lead to large losses due to wastage, or even onerous liability costs if manufacturers fail to intercept a compromised batch. 

As demands on food production continue to increase—both in volume and complexity—food manufacturers will need solutions that can support the rigor of visibility and control needed to deliver absolute assurance on food safety. 


Where Does Digitalisation Come Into Play?

The recipe to succeed in the food manufacturing industry today ultimately boils down to these two capabilities: Flexibility in production and innovation, as well as full visibility and control of production workflow. 

Picture a beer brewer developing a new flavour featuring seasonal ingredients. Besides efforts focused on taste, businesses also need to consider how a new, formula might behave within the existing production set-up. The new formula could change the fermentation conditions or the ingredient composition necessary to brew high-quality beers that are safe for consumption. The situation becomes even trickier when manufacturers service a portfolio of clients, each with a unique bill-of-materials to meet specific customer specifications for raw materials. Manufacturers have to figure how to best toggle between product lines without disrupting others, and finished goods can be rolled out effectively—completely safe for consumption. 

This is when industrial IoT solutions such as MindSphere come into play. Using advanced analytics and AI to monitor, track and analyse process data in real-time, temperature data for the fermentation process can be digitised at the point of capture and added to application, allowing manufacturers to more precisely track and control the fermentation vessel temperature. Manufacturers can also review historical data to identify a temperature profile across historical batches, allowing them to locate and consistently replicate their perfect batch using those parameters. The solution also contextualises the data and map out the most efficient fermentation conditions, allow manufacturers to eliminate estimation and make robust, evidence-based decisions that reap higher margin results. 

Furthermore, the cloud-based IoT operating system can also analyse real-time digital data streams from production equipment and alert manufacturers to impending faults that are invisible to human eyes. This reduces downtime and maintenance costs significantly as problems can be solved before they occur. This also allows manufacturers to guarantee a pipeline of quality-assured products. 

Advanced Planning and Scheduling software—powered by advanced algorithms—can also be utilised to generate achievable production schedules. This overview helps manufacturers to reduce sequencing time and optimise product line changeover times, taking into consideration how often raw materials have to be purchased or replenished, and tracking how long the ingredient has been kept in the inventory. Having a visual management of raw material status for each product can also postulate different scenarios of sales forecasts, and support faster decisions when it comes to which product line to support or discontinue. What used to take days can be easily condensed to just 10 minutes. All the data collated in the process will also help manufacturers remain compliant to food safety regulations necessitating accountability in ingredient provenance. 

Lastly, to protect workers’ safety in this climate of pandemic outbreak, workplace distancing solutions can be incorporated to simulate and manage employee exposure risks while enabling productivity throughout their facilities. Real Time Locating Systems continuously measure distances between workers, and provide real-time visual feedback to create a log of all employee movements and interactions over time. These insights help manufacturers design new manufacturing layouts or workflows that maintain safe work environments, and make educated decisions about long-term optimisation to future-proof operations. 

In the era of modern food manufacturing, digitalisation is no longer a point of difference but a point of parity. Fast-changing market demands requiring flexibility—from production to delivery—can no longer be sufficiently supported by traditional workflows that often function in silo. By injecting digitalisation into the production ecosystem, manufacturers can enjoy centralised visibility and control over their entire facility. With the right data, workflows and solutions in place, digitalisation can be a game-changing ingredient to satisfy the palate of consumers today.  


Contributed by Alex Teo, Managing Director and Vice President South East Asia, Siemens Digital Industries.


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