Real-time location for food safety
By Ulli Thornton, Product Marketing Manager, Identification and Locating Systems, Siemens Industry, Inc.
Thursday, 15 July, 2021
Current events are creating a new urgency around the topic of food and employee safety within the food and beverage industry.
Every manufacturer wants to return to full capacity in production but also to mitigate employee harm, costly partial or full shutdowns, production spoils, recalls and loss of trust from the public consumer. This particular current health threat is, without question, going to shape key trends in your food and employee safety investments, and likely some investments will even be required by regulations meant to alleviate public concern.
Real-time locating systems (RTLS) can deliver significant value that comes from not only knowing the real-time location of employees and products, but also being able to correlate current and historical data to trace the proximity of assets and personnel. Let’s take a deeper look at the value this location intelligence offers to deliver an entirely new level of food and employee safety and mitigate risks.
Is there a new normal required for safety F&B facilities?
A good question to consider today is whether there are new expectations for food and employee safety that are emerging as a result of the 2020 pandemic. Possible food product contamination from employee contact has certainly been a consideration, but prior to recent events, most of the attention has been given to contaminants in food products and ingredients and in the plant environment itself (eg, surfaces, equipment, cleaning products). This latest high-profile event is creating new visibility and attention internally and externally from the public, employees and governance organisations regarding both food and employee safety. It will likely lead to more regulatory requirements that address protecting both employees and products from human pathogens that could be introduced into plant operations. RTLS offers real solutions that can address these new needs.
Key food safety questions that RTLS can potentially address are:
- How can you easily review which food products were exposed to possible contaminants in any location and specific times?
- How can you mitigate revenue loss by isolating and discarding only those food products exposed to possible contaminants by identifying exact locations and times of exposure?
- How can you prevent a total plant shutdown by having access to real-time location data of contaminated products, people and equipment?
RTLS starts with the value of being able to locate and track (in real time or historically) the position of employees, ingredients, food products, tools, robots, or anything else coming in and out of a plant. In terms of food safety, this makes it possible to create a system that can track and associate specific employees or ingredients along with possible contaminant sources with a day, time and duration of exposure. This opens the door to valuable applications that can mitigate risks and loss of production and profits.
Isolating contaminated products
When an employee infection of any type is detected, products can be quickly isolated that may have been contaminated by the employee (or other potentially infected employees) based on specific locations and time windows.
Mitigating potential loss
The ability to isolate specific products makes it possible to only dispose of items or ingredients that have been cross-contaminated, which will save money and also time in resolving issues more quickly. Losses can be limited to products that have been exposed during a certain time period, and reliable data can be supplied to maintain trust and integrity.
Avoiding entire plant shutdowns
The fact that RTLS can quickly perform contact tracing between infected employees and others that have not been exposed provides manufacturers the insight to identify, test and quarantine personnel while the plant continues to operate safely.
Compliance with government and employer guidelines
Guidelines from government authorities and even employers can vary by location. Production processes and workflows are documented, and reports with reliable data can be generated to respond to inquiries and reduce exposure to compliance violations and fines.
RTLS and employee safety
RTLS can also contribute to employee safety by using location and proximity to prevent or reduce safety incidents. The fact that manufacturers can track the location of employees, tools, robots and equipment such as forklifts in real time opens the door for new applications that can deliver key functions such as real-time alerts, equipment shutdown and geo-fencing (eg, for robots) that can truly reduce or prevent incidents.
Key employee safety questions that RTLS can potentially address are:
- How can you keep employees safe using real-time proximity and time alerts?
- How can you easily trace employee contacts to isolate only those employees in contact with potential health dangers?
- How can you control employee access and traffic in areas where potential danger exists during plant operation?
- How can you ensure only employees with qualified training can operate potentially dangerous equipment?
- How can you reduce cost and time by identifying areas that need to be sanitised after an employee has been fallen sick?
- How can you more easily track actual employee work hours to prevent overwork/exhaustion?
Alerting employees about social distancing
Real-time location tracking enables real-time alerts (eg, wearable flashing RTLS tags with customisable alert messaging) to warn employees that they are violating social distancing protocols by standing too close together; for too long.
Creating trust with employees through contact tracing
Quick and effective contact tracing brings assurance to employees that they are being protected by quickly isolating employees with potential health issues so that the rest of the workforce remains healthy.
Optimising facility layout
During times when social distancing and low safety risk scenarios (people and moving equipment) are essential, RTLS provides the key tracking data to evaluate and optimise facility layout, resource management and production flow.
Protecting employees from hazardous equipment
RTLS provides the real-time location data for applications that limit risk of physical harm. For example, robots can be deployed within a geofenced area (limited to a physical area) and employees can receive an alert when entering that area. Forklifts can be controlled based on location data that allow RTLS to work in concert to ‘slow down’ the forklift if in specific proximity to other workers (eg, rounding a blind corner or simply when too many people are present in the nearby area).
Preventing untrained employees from operating specific equipment or systems
RTLS can be deployed to either directly prevent workers from operating equipment without proper training or to generate an alert of such activity. An RTLS transponder can be programmed with the employee profile and training record and then compared with the requirements for operating the equipment or system in real time.
Log and monitor actual work hours and employees on premise
With RTLS, manufacturers can track workers who are tardy or absent. It can track overtime to avoid exhaustion and eliminate on-the-job accidents. The system can generate an alert when someone enters an unsafe or unauthorised area, when accidents occur because a worker hasn’t moved for a prolonged period of time (lone-worker safety) or when employees and authorised visitors on site need to be located in case of an emergency.
How RTLS works
For intelligent systems like mobile robots, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and state-of-the-art automation software to be able to focus and respond autonomously, they need to know at any time what’s where and when. RTLS locating platforms achieve this by locating objects with accuracy measured in centimetres and makes the positioning details available to higher-level systems in real time.
RTLS systems thus make a precise digital twin of all processes possible — from delivery to further processing and final assembly. The relevant objects are fitted with a transponder and transponder signals are picked up by a higher-level system, which calculates their position and provides the information to the intelligent automation systems and manufacturing units.
Transponders are fitted to workpieces, robots, vehicles, etc, and transmit a wireless signal at defined intervals. They can also be equipped with data interfaces, and transmit location details directly to the local control system or make them accessible for higher-level systems.
Gateways are fixed reference points in the local infrastructure for real-time locating. They record the transponder signals and give them a fixed position stamp. The positioning data is bundled and transmitted to the locating server.
The Locating Manager is a software system that calculates the real-time position of the individual transponders and passes the details on to the higher-level systems via defined interfaces.
Other RTLS benefits
The location data provided by RTLS can be used to gain a number of other advantages:
- Elimination of search time for assets: Cost savings can be achieved through the elimination of time-consuming search procedures within the facility, and employee productivity can be better optimised.
- Elimination of material loss: Optimal inventory utilisation is made possible by leveraging first-in and first-out principles, and additional mark-up costs due to replacing lost inventory can be avoided.
- Automated documentation: Cost savings can be found through the elimination of manual documentation procedures related to tracking/flow-in production, and documentation errors can be reduced.
- Lower maintenance cost and improved uptime: RTLS can help reduce maintenance time by directing maintenance to the exact location of affected equipment, achieving a faster response to reduce downtime.
- Optimisation of production and quality: Identifying historical or real-time production bottlenecks can be used to optimise production, while tracing back production errors can prevent the repeating of errors and improve quality.
- Controlling automated manufacturing: In the future, TRTLS could help enable self-organising production and logistics concepts, and help with collision and accident avoidance.
RTLS and the future of plant operations
The focus on safety that the COVID-19 pandemic has delivered is not going to subside. There is a spotlight on the food and beverage manufacturing industry and manufacturers have new business risks to contend with. At the same time, with demand increasing, there is more reason to ensure that shutdowns can be avoided and operations even expanded if necessary. Information is an important competitive tool that can provide the advantage of being able to make decisions sooner than the competition.
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