Does this sound familiar? Rapid change, more complex products, higher volumes and more intense competition. These are the challenges food and beverage processors face today. For some, it can be a web of slow growth, rising costs, waning pricing power, accelerated regulatory and customer requirements, limited sources of raw materials, and a growing percentage of sales from a limited number of powerful and demanding retailers.

GE Fanuc's PACSystems RX7i features a single control engine and universal programming. Source: GE Fanuc.

Automation has long been touted as the messiah for complexity. Many leading food manufacturers recognize the need for an improved, global automation infrastructure than currently exists in even the most automated facilities. To do so requires a shift in the design, selection and deployment of process automation systems: from automation software to plant floor control hardware to the use of more international automation standards and best practices.

Driving forces

Recent and continuing consolidation in the food industry brings emphasis to standardizing common enterprise-wide financial systems, and global deployment of these business systems from both large and small technology suppliers is continuing. Major processors such as Nestlé, Arla Foods and SABMiller are specifying adherence to the ANSI/ISA-95 (ISO/IEC 62246) standard, which is key to factory floor controls because it helps to define the type of data exchanged between business and production systems. Both ANSI/ISA-95 (ISO/IEC 62246) and ANSI/ISA-88 (ISO/IEC 61512) must be considered as factory floor automation is built in order to support a more highly automated and information driven system with minimal manual data entry.

What can automation and plant floor controls offer? Many food industry executives suggest they can help to effectively respond to business drivers such as margin expansion, flexibility to meet customer needs, product quality and safety, expanding customer and regulatory requirements, ability to increase volume and manufacture more complicated products at a single site and speed-to-market. Plant floor performance and manufacturing responsiveness are central to meeting these business drivers; and factory floor control and information systems play a critical role.

Yet, many food manufacturers are now asking what level of process automation will be required to remain competitive and meet future customer and regulatory requirements.

In reality, many plants are not extensively automated, particularly in packaging operations. ARC Advisory Group estimates there are more than $7 billion of legacy process automation systems in the food industry that have reached the end of their lifecycles. At the same time there is a limited availability of capital and human resources to effect change. The questions-how much automation is enough? And what types of plant floor controls do we need?-loom large.

The CoLOS serialized product-pallet label system from MARKEM interfaces with SAP and helps Campina Foods meet customer and regulatory requirements and reduce waste.

The building blocks of control

"Customers are asking us to help them manage their businesses better and reduce their costs," says Siegfried Oblasser, vice president food & beverage industry for Siemens Energy & Automation. "They are also telling us that taking a new idea from concept to the retail shelf is taking too long." Oblasser says processors require improved tools in many areas: production management, recipe management, asset utilization, as well as safety and tracking and tracing systems.

And process automation suppliers are responding. New production management software and more powerful plant floor controllers that can handle both process and discrete applications are increasingly available. More robust on-line continuous quality verification systems have become a business and regulatory necessity. "While most packaging line machinery is highly automated, most labeling and inspection operations remain manual and semi-manual open loop systems," says Michael Putnam, manager of applied intelligence solutions marketing at MARKEM. "As a result, allergen mislabeling and non-readable date and bar codes still occur all too often. In fact, manual and semi-manual operations make it difficult to have truly robust tracking and tracing systems."

Process automation suppliers are also expanding their production-to-business (P2B) systems integration capabilities, production management solutions and factory floor control capabilities. "We see customers putting in more work stations, both full stations and PDA stations," says Renee Brandt, product marketing manager for Wonderware, "so operators can see more of what is going on the manufacturing floor and make better decisions." Meanwhile, although there is a need for increased plant floor automation, even the current data in these controllers is not being used to evaluate and improve operations. "Many small and even large companies like Nestlé have deployed our production event module, which is an easier to use and less complex version of our model-based Intrack product, to meet regulatory tracking and tracing requirements," Brandt says. Wonderware's module offers automatic recording of production events into a database, use of the ISA-95 standard structure to provide production context on process data, traceability capability across production processes, product genealogy and production history analysis.

Rockwell Automation's FactoryTalk is a suite of plant-wide information software built upon its Logix control platform. Source: Rockwell. Automation

Beyond the paper trail

Relying solely on manual data entry is increasingly becoming a thing of the past. "Electronic HACCP records systems will be needed to meet future regulatory and business requirements," says Walter Staehle, MES food & beverage manager, Siemens Energy & Automation. "Paper records systems simply will not be adequate." Siemens' production management software, Simatic IT, includes an easy to configure rule-based e-HACCP solution that features both an electronic workflow enforcement engine and an e-records system.

Other vendors are following suit: GE Fanuc's production management software, called Proficy, provides root cause analyses, historical data summaries, and schedules reports, and controls overall equipment effectiveness (OEE). MARKEM offers an integrated packaging area coding and labeling control system called CoLOS that includes device, data, and line management, template management, reporting, custody level product tracking and tracing, and integration to business, production, and warehouse systems.

Omron also recognizes that the food and beverage industry continues to undergo significant changes that will be drivers for additional retrofits, upgrades and expansions for on-line quality verification. Increased security demands and the need for additional tamper-proof packaging will increase demand for both vision and smart sensors. Government regulations and disease control require additional tracking and tracing solutions that also increase demand for vision and smart sensors.

Rockwell Automation's FactoryTalk is a suite of plant-wide information software built upon its Logix control platform. The company recently introduced PhaseManager, an ISA S-88 batch configuration tool designed to ease configuration and improve productivity and quality. PhaseManager embeds an ISA S88-compliant phase state model into Rockwell Automation Logix controllers, which adds more standards-based functionality at the factory floor controller, providing tools to implement a more modular software design.

"Although major food companies like Procter & Gamble and Nestlé have user requirement specifications that include ISA S-88 requirements," says Paul Moylan, director of food industry marketing at Rockwell Automation, "the key to adoption by most of the major food industry equipment builders is for technology suppliers to provide tools like PhaseManager and our object-based PowerProgramming that make it easy for them to learn and apply these modular software design concepts to their machine controls."

According to John Kowal, director of marketing for ELAU, "There's an important distinction between control-based PLC architecture and what our customers are designing their packaging machines around: an automation platform with the inherent ability to run predominantly modular object-oriented control applications, to handle files the way a computer does, to synchronize upwards of 50 servos on a single processor, and allow MES applications easy access to data without systems integrators spending time searching for bits in registers."

GE Fanuc's PACSystems RX7i, like the other modern process control systems, has a single control engine and universal programming. GE Fanuc also has an aggressive plan to enhance its PAC controller technology utilizing domain expertise in batch control, process historian design, robotics and motion, and embedded controls. However, there are also smaller companies that have developed built-to-purpose software using standard industrial PLCs. For example, Global Automation Partner's DLCBatch is a software package that provides full batch execution and multi-recipe campaign management within the PLC controller.

Food manufacturers have begun to base their future plant level controller selections on factors such as adherence to open industry standards, multi-control discipline functionality, technical feasibility, cost effectiveness, ease of integration and maintainability. The increasing use of robotics has brought embedded controllers with standard communications interfaces to the food industry. In fact, Schneider Electric offers a java-based embedded controller with web services that can seamlessly serve up the data to any web based interface or application, making information available to anyone. Both its process equipment and packaging machinery OEMs utilize the technology, which also simplifies OEM remote diagnostics. More importantly, embedded controllers and built-to-purpose systems with smaller footprints and industrial-strength operating systems will gradually change the architecture, merging robust hardware with open control.

The Production Events module from Wonderware offers automatic recording of production events into a database, use of the ISA-95 standard structure to provide production context on process data, traceability capability across production processes, product genealogy and production history analysis. Source: Wonderware.

The next automation wave

Adding all these factors, and including modular architecture that mirrors applications, and the increasing role of software in automation solutions, leads to an emerging role for "open PLCs" or programmable automation controllers (PACs). PACs will not replace or supersede the traditional PLC, but will play a major role in plant and factory automation today and in the future. What is an open PLC or PAC? Some consider it a traditional PLC with open architecture software, standard languages such as IEC 61131-3, standard communications protocols, open APIs and tool sets to use them. Others include Slot PLCs, which are traditional PLCs in a PC compatible form and integrated into the PC environment. Some include PC-based controls integrated into the PC environment.

Factory floor controllers are becoming the vehicle to open up proprietary process control and application engineering technologies to users and integrators. This is especially true for machine builders and OEMs where smaller and smarter products will be required as machines and equipment become smaller and more distributed. And software modularity will be the next wave in industrial automation. Software modularity begets mechanical modularity, which makes machines more flexible and customizable from standard building blocks.

Many food manufacturers are unaware of these developing automation technologies, international standards and best practices. Margin erosion and consolidation have resulted in reduced available capital and limited technical resources for many food companies. As a result, processors are focused on short-term automation solutions. However, those who succeed will seek out and apply technology for strategic advantage.

For more information:
Mike Krampe, Siemens Energy & Automation Inc., 770-751-4957
Elli Holman, GE Fanuc, 508-698-7456
John Kowal, Elau, 847-490-4270
Renee Brandt, Wonderware,renee.brandt@wonderware.com949-727-3200
Paul Moylan, Rockwell Automation, 919-980-9340,
Michael Putnam, MARKEM, 800-356-2375
Jen Pulins, Omron, 847- 843-7900 ext. 257
Bob Groff, Global Automation Partners, 908-534-0373
Brian Owens, Schneider Electric, 919-855-1141