If the past is prologue, production of food and beverage products will look a lot different in 10 years than it does today.

Smaller, nimbler, more high tech: What’s not to love about the state-of-the-art food plant, circa 2023?

Change comes slowly for manufacturers of food and beverage products, and that’s fine with those comfortable with the status quo. But whether welcome or not, change is coming, and anyone familiar with how plants were constructed and lines operated 10 years ago understands more change is on the way. That’s good news: VFDs were a rarity in food plants a decade ago but are becoming common on all but fractional motors; epic recalls that besmirched the industry’s reputation are becoming mercifully rare; and technologies that extend shelf life while delivering healthier and preservative-free products have left the lab and are entering the mainstream.

Perhaps the biggest shift in the next decade will be in the role of and interaction with employees. Staffing has been a challenge in many manufacturing segments for years. Automation has lowered body counts while raising skill requirements. Recruitment and retention of qualified talent are made more difficult by manufacturing’s poor image and top-down management structures that are incompatible with the expectations of younger workers. If companies are going to develop the workers necessary to maintain production, they not only must redefine the worker-management relationship but also communicate differently with people who weren’t around before the World Wide Web existed and are more comfortable with a smart phone than a user’s manual (see related story below).

The change will be most visible with plant floor HMIs, suggests John Kowal, business development manager at Atlanta’s B&R Industrial Automation. His firm debuted a “multi-touch tablet” that bears a stronger resemblance to an iPad than a conventional HMI at November’s PACK EXPO in Chicago. New panel technology is not driven by manufacturers’ needs but by the expectations of their workers, he says. Multi-touch screens deliver more functions, from recipe management to instructional videos, in a format familiar to any Gen Yer. “It won’t be enough to have buttons” on a standard HMI, Kowal believes.

The work environment will be a lot less hazardous, as well, thanks to improvements in machine safety. The dedicated safety PLC is being rendered obsolete, replaced by a single controller that manages motion, logic and safety functions. “Societal expectations are such that safety is permeating all aspects of automation,” says Tim Roback, marketing manager-safety systems for Rockwell Automation. Globalization is spurring higher standards and expectations. “It is very difficult for manufacturers to explain why one expectation for safety is not applied in another region,” Roback adds. Consequently, machine builders are incorporating top-tier safety technology into all their equipment, regardless of the market in which it will operate.

Have cake, eat it

“Safety and productivity historically have been viewed as mutually exclusive,” Roback continues. In fact, those objectives may be complementary. A 2011 survey by the Aberdeen Group suggests manufacturers with the highest OEE rates also have the lowest accident and injury rates. The Aberdeen study found that companies with OEE of 90 percent or better experienced repeat accident rates of 0.09 percent and injury frequency rates of 0.2. Manufacturers with OEE of 75 percent or lower endured repeat accident rates of 4.54 percent and frequency rates of 3.9.

In 10 years, the productivity equation will look even better as artificial intelligence and alternative means of achieving lock out/tag out (LO/TO) are embraced. For example, ANSI Z244.1, which was established in 2003, outlines standards for achieving functional safety without disconnecting energy input, allowing machines to run in slow-speed mode or safe-off while jams are cleared and minor maintenance is performed. “A robot that is human aware” and isn’t subject to “nuisance trips” when safe-distance protocols are breached is a future possibility, according to Roback.

LO/TO is about compliance. Running machines at safe torque and safe velocity is about increasing safety, not short-circuiting it, adds Kowal.

Faster integration and simplified maintenance are immediate advantages of integrated safety. With standalone safety PLCs, components may be daisy chained, making it difficult to isolate the source of a problem. A controls platform with safety on board simplifies troubleshooting and servicing. Roback cites the experience of Danish OEM Gram Equipment, which incorporated Rockwell’s GuardLogix controller in a high-volume ice cream production line. Not only were system components reduced and commissioning time accelerated, programming changes now can be made by staffers versed in one software program instead of three. Standard and safety I/O modules run on Ethernet/IP, which facilitates remote diagnostics.

“Ethernet/IP already is the de facto standard in the United States” for plant floor data exchange, concurs David McCarthy, president of Tricore Inc., a Racine, WI systems integrator. Profibus fills a similar role in Europe, and both communication protocols will enjoy widespread use in future plants. But McCarthy expects many of the Fieldbus systems for devices and controls to vanish.

B&R’s Kowal offers an alternative scenario. Instead of Ethernet/IP, which is associated with Rockwell, or Profibus, which is tied to Siemens, Kowal suggests a more agnostic protocol will become the standard. In fact, one already exists: the Weihenstephan protocol. Nestlé  used that standard in a PACK EXPO simulation  to demonstrate OMAC interconnectivity, with controllers from B&R, Rockwell, Schneider Electric and Siemens exchanging operating data for multiple packaging machines.

Security will always be a concern when remote access to the shop floor is granted, allows McCarthy, but the benefits are too compelling to thwart manufacturers’ embrace of this level of access. “It’s going to happen because there is a tremendous amount of value in it,” he says. Citing a projection by Sysco, McCarthy says 50 billion plant devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020.

The servers that host much of the programming that drives the shop floor hardware will give way to network services. “The cloud is going to be huge when prices plummet and bandwidth increases,” he predicts. “The cloud will probably replace software,” though it will require closer cooperation between engineering and IT to address data-security issues.

Stable networks

Collaboration between engineering and IT will be more likely in 2023, if only because personnel won’t be as burdened with the labor-intensive connection and maintenance issues that exist today. “Ethernet is more plug and play than buses like DeviceNet and Profibus,” believes Paul R. Meyers Jr., COO of Fort Wayne, IN-based Shambaugh & Son. “Ethernet is the best control network, with the most stable environment out there.” In the not-too-distant past, PLCs weren’t even equipped with an Ethernet port. But as food professionals become more comfortable with the security issues posed by Ethernet, its dominance will grow.

In some respects, food production is a tale of two industries. Centralized control networks in which changes executed in one PLC or HMI trigger a server update are the presumed norm. However, that’s not always the case, Meyers points out. The higher upfront cost puts integrated controls out of reach for many companies, forcing them to live with a decentralized approach.

Similarly, rising hygienic standards would seem to be the death knell for older plants and converting industrial buildings to food production, though that is not yet the case. Today’s pharmaceutical standards may be required in food production in a decade, allows Paul Hudale, sales director at Nutec Group, York, PA, but for now, conversion projects continue. Time and cost are the reasons he cites, though economic distress also plays a role. “I just had a conversation with a client who is looking at a 150,000-sq.-ft. building in a depressed area to relocate his ice cream/bakery operation,” says Hudale. To acquire the building, the client merely needs to pay three years’ back taxes. Extensive renovation will be required, but the timeline from project planning to production would be half that of a greenfield plant.

Obsolete facilities are a fact of life in the protein sector, but the cost of grain and other economic forces preclude extensive upgrade and new plants. Uncertainty over evolving product expectations also discourages construction. “People don’t know how to build for the future,” says Chuck Pharr, a principal at VCP&A, Springdale, AR. Once future demands become clearer, Pharr expects smaller, more flexible, regional plants will become the norm, replacing large, centralized facilities.

Product quality is the reason: “A smaller regional plant can produce a higher-quality product than a big commodity plant,” he says. Quality also is the key to more automation. “In slaughter operations, there is a huge tradeoff between automation and quality,” says Pharr, and the inability of machinery to duplicate human performance helps explain why protein plants continue to be labor-intensive operations. But if technology rises to the challenge, the fabrication floors in beef, pork and poultry will have a lot less people on them in 2023.

Even with more machinery, protein plants will require less energy and water to operate. “We’re not doing it to be greener; we’re doing it to lower cost,” he explains. Biodigesters will become common features, deriving more value from waste than rendering provides while addressing wastewater treatment needs.

Much of VCP&A’s architectural engineering work involves protein foods, a segment in the front lines of the animal-welfare issue. In 2001, Pharr designed Michigan Turkey Producers’ Wyoming, MI plant, one of the first US kill facilities to use CO2 stunning. Similar technology has been applied to hogs and chickens, but cost has kept it out of the mainstream. The situation may be very different in 10 years. “You’ll see more and more carbon dioxide stunning, but it won’t catch on until you see more pressure” from customers and the public, he predicts.

Walkable ceilings and automatic storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) also will become common features in many plants, predicts Shambaugh’s Meyers. “We’re asked about AS/RS in every greenfield project,” he says. “Not all can afford them, but in 10 years, they’re going to be standard in most facilities.” For example, the cost of structural steel needed to build a walkable ceiling discourages some companies from including that feature, but the long-term efficiencies will make it standard in 10 years, at least for pumpable foods. Not only do walkable ceilings improve hygiene in process areas, they lower maintenance costs by eliminating horizontal surfaces.

Both Meyers and Nutec’s Hudale predict much greater attention will be paid to air quality. Since intensive surface sanitation does nothing to curb airborne contamination, food processors will invest in better HVAC systems to maintain positive air pressure and direct airflow from the cleanest to the dirtiest zones, says Meyers. Hudale goes further, saying, “Separate air systems for process rooms will be mandated.” He also foresees separate facilities for allergen and nonallergen ingredients, as firms conclude zone separation is doomed to failure.

Air quality issues also help explain why LEED certification will fade for food plants by 2023. Green building standards are fine for offices and public spaces, but they are incompatible with sanitary requirements, says Darryl Wallace, a professor of industrial and systems engineering at Youngstown State University. Higher R values on insulation rack up LEED points, yet that’s a pointless expenditure in a food plant, where multiple air exchanges every hour are a defense against airborne bacteria.

New expectations, new machines

Consumer expectations can shift on a dime, and ingredients that enjoyed growth a decade ago become pariahs overnight (think high fructose corn syrup). But demand for “natural” ingredients and fewer preservatives is a trend with legs that will impact the technology used to process foods.

Aseptic equipment design complements the clean-label trend. While aseptic processing in the United States remains a niche application compared to other regions of the world, the sanitary principles and sterilization techniques used in aseptic are being applied to food handling equipment for products with cold chain distribution. (The grim outlook for mainstream aseptic is underscored by the change in venue for the Aseptipak conference to Asia, after 30 years in the US.)

So-called ultraclean machinery will be common in 2023, as will high-pressure processing (HPP). A novel technology for shelf-stable foods a decade ago, HPP already is on the cusp of mainstream use, but as a pasteurization, not aseptic, process. Growing interest is reflected in the recent acquisition of a HPP unit by the National Food Lab (NFL) in Livermore, CA, a leading process authority. Low throughput is a drag on wider use, but larger-capacity machines and the development of semi-continuous systems will expand HPP into more applications, predicts Wilfredo Ocasio, NFL’s vice present, food safety & commercialization.

Ocasio refuses to write aseptic’s obituary. Hot fill of high-acid fluids trumps aseptic, but that will change. “Hot fill-hold is a much lower capital investment, but its cost is on the back end,” he says, referring to the more expensive containers it requires. As material costs increase, aseptic will become more attractive.

Microwave processing also will play a bigger role. High relative cost for electricity retarded the use of technology powered by electrical energy in years past, but that resistance is eroding, suggests Tim Durant, founder and co-CEO of Enwave Corp., a Vancouver, BC developer of a vacuum microwave drying technology. “Electric costs come up early when we start talking to prospective customers,” he says, “but microwave technology is becoming more and more efficient. Once you prove what the actual costs are, it doesn’t come up anymore.”

Durant sees parallels with robotics, which owes part of its acceptance in food to increased speed, flexibility and compatibility with automation. Removing human contact in food processing also is a goal in food safety, notes Hudale, and declining costs and simplified programming will accelerate adoption.

Mitch Vanover, manager of automation at Cincinnati’s Hixson, agrees. “Tomorrow’s workers will be focused more on oversight and problem resolution,” he says. Consigning repetitive and injury-prone tasks to machines will facilitate the shift. It also underscores the need for a more collaborative approach with well-trained employees.

Change comes in increments, and it is tempting to assume tomorrow’s food plants will look very much like today’s. But automation, machinery and facility design underwent significant change in the last decade, and greater change is likely in the decade to come.


For more information:

Mark Grace, Beyond Via, 678-595-6760, markgrace@beyondvia.com

John Kowal, B&R Industrial Automation, 630-258-0371, john.kowal@br-automation.com

Tim Durant, Enwave Corp., 604-806-6110, tdurant@enwave.net

Mitch Vanover, Hixson Inc., 513-241-1230

Wilfredo Ocasio, National Food Lab, 925-828-1440

Paul Hudale, Nutec Group, 717-434-1532, phudale@nutecgroup.com

Tim Roback, Rockwell Automation, 414-382-2000

Paul R. Meyers Jr., Shambaugh & Son, 260-487-7805, pmeyersjr@shambaugh.com

David McCarthy, Tricore Inc., 262-886-3630

Chuck Pharr, VCP&A Inc., 479-756-0007


Images that talk the talk

The visual factory is an old concept that’s gaining new life, thanks to the capabilities and availability of personal electronic devices. But to get the most from them, food companies need to master the principles of “visual talking,” suggests Mark Grace, founder and president of Beyond Via.
In recent years, Grace has veered from plant floor intelligence to sales and marketing consulting, though effective communication consistently lies at the core of his message. Before Beyond Via, he developed Thinkage, a service that put real-time production information into the hands of operators and supervisors who could take corrective actions when food processing started to drift from optimal outcomes. Thinkage staffers worked onsite at client facilities, such as poultry processor Gold Kist Inc.’s Sumter, SC plant. Rather than gather sensor readings and other data and presenting a course of action, they were there to train line workers to react to the information they were receiving, explains Grace.
Production goals, performance rates and KPIs are routinely posted or displayed, “but when it comes to how-to information, that’s a little harder” to communicate effectively, he says. Visual communication through “sequenced imagery” can deliver need-to-know information and overcome any language barriers much more easily than text messages or written instructions. Putting those images in the palm of an operator’s hand with a mobile device or tablet would produce the best outcomes, though for security reasons, the information should reside on a local server and not be accessible from beyond the factory’s four walls.
“Images available on the web are a virtual dictionary for visual talking,” Grace says. “If you want to show someone how to operate a piece of equipment on the floor, it’s easy to create sequenced imagery that explains it without text.” Armed with a typical library of 6,000 images, many of his clients are communicating effectively with their customers and others. An example of communicating with sequenced imagery resides on the site, www.visualtalking.com.