Q&A: What does the future look like for food production technology?
Ask the expert: Senior Systems Engineer Stuart Mitchell gives us his first-hand insights into the current challenges Australian food and beverage manufacturers face.Stuart has worked with manufacturers for more than 27 years. As a SAGE Automation Senior Systems Engineer he’s worked with food and beverage clients such as BD Farms, SA Water, Arnott’s Biscuits and Tiptop to improve their control systems and enhance use of food production technology.
Given Stuart's exposure to the industry, we asked him about the current challenges food and beverage manufacturers face, and how technology will be used to solve them:
Question: What are some of the new challenges food and beverage manufacturers are facing now?
Cost is the biggest challenge for our food and beverage clients by far. They've got to keep costs down to remain competitive and the rising cost of energy is especially pertinent for Australian manufacturers.
Other challenges are in standards, quality and repeatability of process – food and beverage manufacturers need to know that they're making the same product, every time.
Following from this they need to respond to growing consumer demand for traceability, i.e. 'what's in the food I'm eating'? How do companies recall batches and communicate so quickly? Legislation and technology is moving towards allowing mass traceability from source to plate which means that manufacturers must start looking at what's available.
Finally safety is paramount. Food and beverage is incredibly diverse but essential safety best-practices, risk audits and compliant control and automation equipment is required across the board.
In general, manufacturers are very proactive about safety and the nature of food and beverage means each plant will have different safety risks. For example, we recently implemented electrical earth monitoring in flour and sugar tanks for an international biscuits brand. The tanks are monitored to the earth to detect abnormal currents in static electricity (a by-product of mixing process), warning operators of fire risk. So you’ve got an entirely different solution here compared with risks associated with say, carbonated drinks production.
Every SAGE project will typically address all or most of these challenges.
Question: What are some of the new efficiencies food production technology can offer existing producers?
Downtime and yield performance monitoring, quality improvements and traceability, and time and cost savings across the value chain — these are all key improvement areas that current control system and software technologies can offer food and beverage manufacturers today.
In particular, preventative and predictive maintenance has seen the most improvement of the past few years.
More companies are reaping the benefits of sensor technologies as they come down in cost. Sensors that measure weight range or ingredient sample analysis can improve product quality while those that measure equipment temperature or vibrations inform operators if it needs maintenance.
An Australian food manufacturer is using a dual sensor on its sugar grinding equipment. Vibration and temperature readings inform the plant if the equipment is operating at a safe rate, and predict when it will need servicing and/or replacement bearings.
Question: Where do you see food production technology heading in the next 5 years?
There’s three key areas that are really relevant today and will be in the next five years:
IoT and what it means for the software market
The explosion of the IIoT and IoT has really opened up the market. We are now seeing products and services entering the market that aren't being created or offered by the traditional major vendors. As a result there been a shift away from 'proprietary only' solutions to open source or a combination of both.
Companies want choice, and how they can more easily mix and match to suit their needs, for example companies are buying from different suppliers and selecting operational software that can be integrated with other business systems.
Our sister company Nukon is big in this IT and OT integration space and we'll see more and more businesses demanding this 'connected enterprise' type operation. This approach along with innovative software, data collection and processing tools and cloud-based storage will meet the increasing demand for visibility and connectivity across the entire business.
Another more pressing issue for Australian manufacturers is in energy consumption. In order to mitigate rising energy costs manufacturers will need to invest more in energy consumption technologies that, for example that tell conveyors to switch off when not in use. These technologies are readily available but we will see this space grow as energy becomes more expensive.
Some companies are already optimizing their use of alternative energy supply for production.
For example, a dairy processing client is expanding its use of solar heat exchanger in pasteurization. Right now the solar exchanger is only used for the sterilization process but we’re helping the business integrate the technology to perform more energy demanding processes such as pasteurization. This integration is paired with robust automation processes to switch back to traditional power if needed. So we’re seeing more and more that manufacturers’ ‘energy mix’ can be diverse and reliable with the right systems in place.
This article was published as a guest post on IndustrySearch.com.