Collaborating to create the future food and beverage factory

Siemens Ltd

Tuesday, 18 April, 2023


Collaborating to create the future food and beverage factory

Most food and beverage manufacturers understand that accelerating digital transformation and maximising the value of data will be central to tackling today’s challenges.

The climate crisis, a national skills shortage, a global pandemic: any one of these factors in isolation is enough to disrupt a food and beverage manufacturing industry. In 2020, all of these factors coalesced to create unprecedented levels of pressure. Both manufacturers and machine builders adapted quickly to try and protect staff while minimising supply chain issues. But they’re also hard at work considering how best to move forward in the long term.

Most understand that accelerating digital transformation and maximising the value of data will be central to tackling these challenges. Manufacturers know that operations need to become more resilient and agile, with minimal machine downtime and the ability to pivot production at speed. Productivity and efficiency need to go up — while costs need to go down. There’s a demand for more proactive planning, more preventative actions and more recommendations. And all of this needs to be achieved with sustainability targets in mind.

The race to transform successfully is on. Some are already out of the starting blocks, embracing digitalisation and automation to drive outcomes. Machine builders, of course, have a pivotal role to play in this shift — supporting end users with greater machine performance and roadmaps for the future. In fact, there’s a growing awareness that since manufacturers and machine builders can bring different things to the table, organisations can’t solve these problems on their own.

Silos of innovation and best practice need to be bridged, with manufacturers and machine builders finding the sweet spot for collaboration. But it’s not always clear what role different parties need to play. For businesses that have historically worked on a transactional basis only, working together is easier said than done.

To achieve this, manufacturers and machine builders need clear oversight of what their respective strengths are, as well as what the other is expecting and can feasibly deliver. New partnerships and forums for innovation need to be developed — and external technology providers may have a role to play in facilitating the shift.

The motivation for innovation

Even before external factors like the COVID-19 pandemic cast a shadow over the industry, food and beverage manufacturers were already under pressure from issues like aging infrastructure and rising costs. Now — with technical, economic, political and workforce challenges in the mix — manufacturers collectively recognise that innovation and greater machine performance will be critical to their future success.

Strategic motivations

Manufacturers are looking to radically improve machine performance across a range of areas. Quality of output remains a key concern, but manufacturers also need to be able to withstand disruption, adapt faster to change, and hit growing sustainability targets.

Resilience and agility

Improving business resilience, machine performance and production agility is a growing concern for food and beverage manufacturers facing supply chain risk, demand fluctuation and production challenges. Even brief downtime can have serious and wide-reaching effects, meaning there’s strong industry appetite both for improved diagnostics, but also for proactive, preventative maintenance of machinery.

Threats to the supply chain are driving a need for better scenario planning, with manufacturers seeking the ability to change production levels quickly as needed. Many are exploring greater flexibility for production times — and seeking ways to scale up and down faster to meet demand closer to real time.

Efficiency and productivity

The demand for greater productivity has always been present in manufacturing. However, growing pressures — like labour shortages and a need to facilitate remote working, for example — mean manufacturers are facing spiralling workforce productivity challenges. Bots and automation provide the opportunity to reduce spreadsheet work and repetitive tasks, but skills gaps mean innovation can’t always be taken advantage of. Manufacturers ultimately need support, not only with machinery and software that facilitates automation, but with people and process training.

At the same time, manufacturers are striving to create efficiencies wherever they can, minimising costs while maintaining quality. One way of doing this is to improve machine resilience and extend equipment lifecycles; many manufacturers are looking to sweat their assets more effectively to avoid the need for costly new kit.

Doing this successfully requires better maintenance and understanding of asset health — which in turn demands not only better HMIs and dashboards with smarter integrations and greater visibility of machine data, but also the skills and experience to understand and respond to that data at speed.

Sustainability

From environmental legislation to investor and consumer pressure, sustainability is high on the agenda. Having the ability to transform energy use and packaging is rapidly evolving into a central issue for suppliers and consumer food and beverage brands alike.

To achieve this goal, manufacturers must be able to track, measure and mitigate their environmental impact. But as it stands, many lack the ability to accurately understand their energy usage or the carbon footprint of their production and operations environment.

Some are more mature than others, but all are reaching the end of the road with conventional efficiencies for energy and down-gauging for packaging. Having done all they can, the onus is increasingly on machine builders and other technology providers to help manufacturers reach the next stage of sustainable productions.

For all of these strategic priorities, digital transformation — and in particular, better access to and ability to use data — can deliver powerful results.

But as it stands, food and beverage manufacturers face serious challenges in gathering, analysing and reacting to data effectively. For the industry to progress, these roadblocks must be overcome.

Data and digitalisation

Production line environments are rich with data, and manufacturers are keen to both utilise it effectively, and embrace digitalisation more widely. Yet data maturity is low, and most manufacturers are still in the early stages. Some have limited data visibility, with interfaces that make data gathering difficult to manage, while others have an abundance of data but no real sense of what to do with it.

Fundamentally, all the data in the world means nothing if it’s not possible to analyse and respond to it in a timely manner. It should be noted, however, that this is as much a point around people and processes as it is technology. As automation and data gathering increases, the demands on people change. There’s anxiety about what growing automation means for certain roles. And while the value of greater data usage and digitalisation is obvious, the absence of relevant skills in the workforce means it's difficult to realise value.

As a result, some businesses are cautious about a tech-led agenda that neglects to facilitate people and process change sensitively. Even as tech evolves and digital transformation accelerates outcomes, it can create serious problems with those working onsite.

Increasingly employees are being asked to shift to more analytical, problem-solving roles, which means major cultural and skills evolution is required — whether that’s reframing objectives, retraining those whose jobs have been impacted by automation, or bringing in external support to upskill existing workforces. Ultimately, those working in the industry need thoughtful support and considered training to move in step with transformation.

Supporting change

With so much complexity to wade through — and with technology, people and process challenges to untangle — food and beverage manufacturers need support if they’re going to succeed. Machine builders and other industry tech providers have an important role to play — and manufacturers are looking to these organisations to assist.

There’s an emerging sense that manufacturers want to evolve how they buy machinery. Their desire for assurances around KPIs, and SLAs, suggests that a shift to a servitisation model could be beneficial, rather than simply buying machinery and taking it from there.

Beyond this, they want to work with external partners to evolve, adapt, learn and grow. With internal skill sets often lacking, manufacturers are seeking expert voices that can guide them on resilience, agility and predictive capabilities. And they don’t just want access to more data — they need help turning this into useful, actionable information.

Stepping up to support: machine builder ambitions

At present, machine builders are some way off being able to collaborate with manufacturers on all of their strategic goals. However, their capacity for innovation is significant, and many are collaborating with manufacturers successfully on specific briefs and problem solving — such as making specific machines more agile.

Broadly, many providers feel they can offer guidance and visibility of digital strategy for assets, and assurance that assets will be kept up-to-date with factory norms and connectivity over their lifecycle.

Yet as the industry gets to grips with ambitions around the data-driven factory of the future, a general shortage of data and analytics experts in the industry means machine builders aren’t yet in a position to help to full effect.

However, they have ambitious plans for the future.

Facilitating agility

Machine builders are exploring how they can help manufacturers pivot at speed — a capability that has proved crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some manufacturers have needed to adapt packaging, repackaging products previously sent to hospitality businesses for a direct-to-consumer model. Others had to change the size of packaging; it’s just one example, but with many spending Christmas in lockdown, demand for large turkeys decreased, meaning there was a greater need to package crowns and legs.

Machine agility is fundamental to achieving this. It can also contribute to sustainability goals, as green packaging alternatives emerge and manufacturers have to adapt. And it may even support manufacturers looking to decentralise sourcing and rely on food grown locally — meaning the goods requiring packaging change with the seasons.

Creating the conditions for resilience

With end-user manufacturers seeking more assurance about performance and availability, machine builders are increasingly advising on predictive capabilities — along with proactive maintenance and preventative fixes — to ensure operations can continue without interruption.

Many machine builders agree they should act as the experts on how their equipment runs, how it can be maintained, and how assets can be sweated — although they’re also aware that some use cases are very specific, making it hard to commit to contractual guarantees in a scalable way.

Research suggests that while most manufacturers are discussing resilience, not all of the machine builders are having these discussions with end users — meaning there’s a need for more conversation between the two groups.

Remote management

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced an acceleration for those exploring how the production line can be managed, maintained, altered or analysed remotely.

However, the constraints of lockdown aren’t the only motivating factor here. With skills in such short supply, using augmented reality or remote management capabilities eases the burden on a limited pool of skilled individuals being physically in the room.

Data management

With manufacturers producing more and more data, machine builders are looking to support them with utilising this information effectively. What this looks like in reality varies — from dashboards that make data easier to understand, to integrations at the edge that ensure insight can be shared easily.

As with manufacturers, the overall conclusion is that machine builders are working hard to innovate and accelerate digital transformation — all while moving towards an operational model that enables everyone across the industry to collaborate for better outcomes.

However, the fact remains that there are still hurdles to be jumped on both sides — such as talent shortages, facilitating collaboration and even financing the necessary transformation.

Collaboration for the future factory

Although there’s a clear sense of where innovation efforts should focus, there are undeniably many challenges afoot for both food and beverage manufacturers and the machine builders hoping to support them.

There’s uncertainty about finding or developing the right talent to lead on key projects. Since no single organisation alone has the time, talent and resources to solve all of the industry’s problems, a big cultural shift is required to facilitate the collaboration that’s needed. And with so much innovation required, organisations are also being placed under financial pressure, at a time when many are already feeling the pinch due to the broader economic situation.

But, more positively, there is an emerging sense of how to move forward.

Manufacturers understand both the trends in the market, and what innovation should look like in order for the industry to thrive. From smarter data analytics to remote management and greater flexibility in the production line, these businesses can see a smarter, more resilient and more agile future for the factory floor — and they’re keen to build on recent transformational changes and learnings.

Perhaps most importantly there’s a growing sense that businesses don’t have to figure all of this out alone. Everyone involved sees the need for a more holistic approach to achieving all of these ambitions — with people, processes and technological innovation considered in tandem, rather than silos.

There’s an appetite for collaboration, understanding and sharing of best practice across the industry. With skills in short supply, and pressures mounting, food and beverage manufacturers are keen to be supported and guided by those who provide their production line equipment. Machine builders, meanwhile, are also keen to share knowledge across the industry, while taking on more of a consultative role for manufacturers.

But since this level of collaboration is new ground for an industry that has traditionally worked in silos, there’s a need for external partners to step up and facilitate.

Image: iStock.com/MJ_Prototype

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