Think back 20 years or so, and the average food plant typically had little automation, and whatever it did have was likely to exist in islands of automation.

There were many point-source solutions, such as HMIs, machine controllers, historians, data acquisition systems, statistical process control (SPC) software, laboratory information management systems (LIMS), shop floor systems and, of course, the ubiquitous spreadsheet. Believe it or not, according to one of the software experts interviewed for this article, more than half of U.S. food and beverage manufacturers are still using spreadsheets for one application or more.

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Time marches on. While no one interviewed would suggest that a food or beverage manufacturer convert all its manufacturing software systems to an industrial internet of things (IIoT) platform in one fell swoop, many would suggest that to remain competitive in a fast-changing consumer product environment, it wouldn’t be a bad idea—for those that haven’t already done so—to embark on the “digitalization journey” now. That means committing a small project to an upgrade with a long view toward interconnecting as many processes as possible, realizing that there may never be a finite end point—because technology changes so rapidly.

If you attended the Rockwell Automation Fair in Philadelphia in November, you probably noticed that the theme was the Digitalization Journey, combined with IIoT and Industry 4.0 concepts. While these are all catchy buzzwords, many conference exhibitors, including system integrators and security system providers, controls and networking hardware and application software, are all literally connecting their systems together to benefit the plant of the future—to make it a facility that thrives on actionable intelligence, enabling better and informed processing and maintenance decisions, and keeping uptime and efficiency as high as possible.

People are also a very important part of this equation. But without sensors making key measurements, the journey can’t get started, because neither people nor machines will have the critical data they need to control the process.

“IIoT, if deployed correctly, can help organizations become more effective and efficient,” says Michael Rothschild, Indegy director of product marketing. To be able to monitor production readings without manual intervention not only improves product quality, but also can stop processes before damage to the final product. In the past, monitoring production processes was a largely manual activity that was expensive and prone to human error. Connecting sensors via IIoT eliminates manual processes to reduce costs and virtually eliminates human error.

So the journey begins

Blentech is a supplier of equipment and software for cooking, mixing, cooling, material handling, cryogenics, marinating, and custom and advanced solutions. The company has embraced IIoT as a fundamental part of its future plans.

“Blentech sees the industrial internet of things as a journey—not a destination,” says Matthew Hartman, PE, senior automation sales. “Blentech sees the IIoT revolution as the marriage between the plant sensor and the decision-maker.”

For example, Blentech’s CookerCloud historian is a cloud-based platform to deliver IIoT capabilities to clients. It collects process data and reports on cooker status, sensor health, process trends and operational characteristics in real time. 

Whether information delivered by such an application is hosted on premises or in the cloud, the important takeaway is this information takes the guesswork out of decision-making. 

“The process data removes the sometimes wrong ‘gut feel’ and moves to data-supported decisions,” says Hartman. “Many times, decisions are made with large safety factors, because you just don’t know what is happening in the process. However, with process data, such as temperature, pressure and flow, you know how to safely optimize your process to yield optimal culinary, safety and production requirements.”

Unfortunately, trendy concepts including Industry 4.0, IIoT and digitalization are not going to make a successful plant automation project. Even process automation and equipment suppliers realize that in providing products and services to food and beverage processors, jargon alone won’t get the right tools into food facilities. 

“We look at the full scope of digitalization, IIoT and Industry 4.0,” says Ola Wesstrom, Endress+Hauser senior industry manager food and beverage. Wesstrom points out that E+H has an online portal with selection, order tracking, sizing and drawings as one component—and product functions such as advanced diagnostics, self-verification and calibration as another. All this is tied together with various digital/cloud-based tools/applications to simplify maintenance and optimize operations for customers.

With the growing adoption of IIoT technology, there is a huge demand for collecting and storing vast amounts of information. But that data must be managed properly to be useful. 

“Sensors mean more data, but more data does not mean more insights; it simply means more data,” says Michael Risse, Seeq Corporation VP/CMO. “Even without more sensors, most plants are drowning in data with too few insights, because data sets are disconnected, unintegrated and hard to work with. Therefore, more sensors don’t mean progress unless the experience and expertise of the employees to find the insights they need can be applied.” 

These insights could lead to increased plant throughput, new products, safer food distribution, better insights into suppliers, etc., adds Risse. “With increased speed to insight using advanced analytics software, tapping the expertise of the current employees (no data scientists required) is dramatically faster.”

The technology is available now to analyze this data and get business insights, enabling manufacturing operations to share insights with R&D, industrialization and quality teams to select the recipes, processes and manufacturing methods to guarantee the best performance in the minimum time, says Miguel Najera, Schneider Electric consumer packaged goods segment leader for North America. “New capabilities for simulating processes and operations will also have an impact on time to market with better anticipation of potential issues and better training of the operations teams.” 

IIoT, food product design, quality and food safety

Think of IIoT as the feedback loop (circuit) that makes it possible to design a food product, check it for manufacturability, make it, quality check it and test it for food safety. When there are issues encountered along the way, a sensor-based or derived signal goes to the appropriate spot in the process to make a change that perfects the outcome. So an IIoT-connected plant enterprise has a big feedback loop from output back to input, with several smaller loops in between, which constantly check the product for quality issues. In terms of food safety, risk-based preventive controls could cover those feedback loops. (See the updated preventive controls diagram in “The importance of preventive controls,” Food Engineering, April 2018.)

Three experts share their insights in this area:

  • “Food safety and product quality go hand in hand—and should begin in R&D, not at the end of the production cycle,” says SpecPage CEO Severin Weiss. “Manufacturers who have the vision to expand the definition of innovation from simple ideation to encompass the entire product lifecycle have a distinct competitive advantage when it comes to food safety and quality control.”
  • “Data-driven decision-making rooted in real-time information and history provides advantages to all types of production and should play into the development, quick ramp-up and nimble adjustment of any new product line,” says Barbara Ellis, Fluke Corporation senior content and brand manager for Fluke Accelix. “We would expect teams to utilize all the data aggregated to determine a value of production changes, new process integration obstacles and hurdles, and assessment of impact to the facility.”
  • “IIoT capabilities will allow food and beverage manufacturers to take design concepts and model their production to determine costs, scheduling implications, potential packaging solutions and more,” says Todd Gilliam, ABB U.S. segment leader, food and beverage. All of this can be done virtually so that the process is optimized before any physical changes happen on the shop floor.

“One important application for IIoT is to connect management to production,” says Bob McIlvride, director, communications, Skkynet, a Control System Integrators Association (CSIA) partner member. Food and beverage companies that implement IIoT technologies can apply them to product design at any point where the production process has an impact on a product’s final quality, taste, texture or nutritional value. For example, recording the temperature of a liquid at every moment and every point of the production process, as it travels through vats, pipes, valves and so on, might bring to light hidden problems.

While product design isn’t always done at the manufacturing facility, IIoT technology can still play a role in designing products and supporting manufacturing processes. “While the sensors themselves are usually the same in pilot and development facilities, the information provided via applications to nonoperational staff proves to be valuable as different recipes are developed,” says Wesstrom. For example, information sent in parallel to the control systems also goes directly to food scientists with current status and results.

“The increased availability of data and analytics will have significant benefits in scale-up and commissioning of new products,” says Marcus Parsons, Emerson director, food and beverage industry program. These analytics will allow producers to better understand process variability and match pilot and full production scale products in shorter time periods.

“One tool to enable this is creating a digital twin of a plant operating system,” adds Parsons. “This allows for testing, simulation and training prior to startup. As one example, Emerson created digital twins for a food and beverage customer, enabling startups six weeks ahead of schedule with an ROI of 850 percent.”

How can an IIoT infrastructure improve food safety? According to Rao Kolla, Stellar senior controls engineer, process engineering, this can be done simply if the system is set up correctly with the right sensors and data collection points. “Let’s say your facility is producing sauce, and that sauce needs to be heated to 192°F for five minutes to ensure all HACCP regulatory requirements are met. In the past, if a batch is only cooked for four minutes, you may not realize you have a bad batch until it is packaged, because of how long it would take for a manual report to be delivered to the quality control department.”

However, Kolla says, internet-connected sensors can measure those time and temperature set points in real time and immediately send a notification if they are not met. Now, that bad batch can be disposed of right away, saving time and money while reducing the risk of that product leaving the facility. Thanks to real-time IIoT technology, potential food safety issues can be detected quickly and dealt with internally before getting to the point of a recall.

Connectivity from an LMS (line management system; e.g., Krones SitePilot) to ERP is a method that can be implemented for production management, track and trace and keeping quarantined products from leaving the plant, says Joseph Snyder, president of Process and Data Automation, a CSIA Certified member. 

“Information about products that are reaching packaging cells along with the license plate data that is managed via LMS come together at the product labeling event so there is traceability,” says Snyder. This can be further extended to an integrated warehouse solution, also offered within the Krones family, to provide true door-to-door visibility by incorporating raw ingredient storage and later finished goods. In the case of preventing products from erroneously leaving the site when quarantine is required, this provides the most flexible mechanism to identify an order’s location within the manufacturing process or warehouse.

How IIoT benefits production and packaging

Today’s plants are running increasingly fast, and complex packaging solutions are not as easy to duplicate or extend, says Snyder. Thus, every second of uptime counts when getting the most from packaging assets. Process and Data Automation is a member of the Krones Group and provides integration services for Krones equipment.

How do you define “fast”? A new Krones-supplied Kulmbacher Brewery bottling line fills swing-stopper bottles at the rate of 50,000 containers per hour—or 833 per minute, setting (according to Krones) a new world speed record for this type of bottle. 

A system that is properly tuned to operate as an integrated solution provides the basis for efficient operation, but one that provides immediate, relevant information and connects the machines, the personnel and the maintenance software operations is that much more ahead of simple operational efficiency, says Snyder. For example, a line that can alert operators to pending or existing maintenance requirements while simultaneously requisitioning the required parts and PM supplies and reordering those same supplies leads to a more robust, easier-to-operate facility. 

The largest pitfall remains: Legacy equipment can’t connect in the way adjacent equipment or newer lines can, adds Snyder. In the case of Krones’ Share2Act platform, the ReadyKit solution brings legacy or noncontrolled items onto a common platform as the more highly integrated portions of a line or facility. 

When it comes to packaging, changeovers and downtime are the biggest factors today, says Stellar’s Kolla. “Of course, the goal is always to maximize revenue by running the most amount of product with the [smallest number] of assets. A well-connected plant can help achieve this by making packaging more efficient. Sensors on packaging equipment can be programmed to understand what SKUs to expect from the processing side at a given time.”

These sensors can then verify that the correct packaging is being used for various products and immediately halt the process if there is a discrepancy, adds Kolla. Traditionally, if an operator ran the product in the wrong packaging film, it may not have been detected until much later, resulting in wasted product and packaging destined for the trash.

For example, Campbell’s Soups was seeing cans with missing labels. This led to mislabeling instances, recalls and production losses due to manufacturing issues. The company experienced significant inaccuracy in using master data across multiple systems and heterogeneous plant environments. After employing AVEVA software solutions, including a quality application with a mislabeling identification module, the company was able to decrease product giveaway by 25 percent, reduce material costs by 3 percent and accelerate continuous improvement with an additional 75 projects per year.

In an IIoT-connected facility, labeling parameters are downloaded from a server. Instead of an operator potentially typing incorrect dates, time stamps or plant codes, that information can be pushed directly to the internet-connected equipment, reducing operator error. The data can also be checked by vision inspection systems, leaving operators to verify the overall process is running optimally.

While speed on a particular line may be important, flexibility and adapting to change are also requisite for production/packaging lines. Packaging has traditionally been one of the more automated parts of the manufacturing process, but new digital technologies are creating some game-changing opportunities in this area, especially with enabling more customization and flexibility around batch sizes and packaging variety to respond to rapidly changing consumer demands, says ABB’s Gilliam. As flexible robotics solutions continue to proliferate, condition monitoring and remote access will support wider application. 

“Our B&R ACOPOStrak smart factory control solution is offering some revolutionary new ways of designing packaging,” adds Gilliam. This digital adaptive manufacturing approach is a highly flexible transport system that can allow processors to extend the economy of mass production down to batches of one, if desired. Products can be transported at a very high speeds and flexibly from processing station to processing station on independently controlled shuttles. 

There’s another important IIoT dimension to packaging equipment, which may not at first seem obvious, but could provide new business. Arun Sinha, Opto 22 engineer, explains: “One of the key areas in which the well-connected IIoT-based plant will affect the packaging operation is with OEMs supplying packaging machinery.

“Next generation IIoT communication protocols, such as MQTT (message queue telemetry transport), greatly simplify the task of remote monitoring for OEMs by making it easy to connect their machines at a customer site,” adds Sinha. “OEMs can now add value to their customers’ packaging operations by offering remote service, troubleshooting and machine optimization.”

Take this one step further, and OEMs might find a new business model. Sinha suggests that this remote monitoring capability can also allow the business model to change whereby the OEM decreases or even eliminates the capital expenditure for its machine and charges for “packaging as a service” (per usage time, units produced, etc.). Sinha says this is already happening in some applications, such as compressed air machines. One potential drawback is that this model could increase reliance on the OEM by the end user and may raise questions surrounding the ownership of the data.

IIoT and people

“An IIoT system provides employees with actionable information to improve their operational decision-making,” says Lianne Chu, P. Eng., PMP and commercial project engineer for Rockwell Automation. This means personnel can collaborate and share information across the organization in a contextualized, structured format. In operations, plant personnel understand the importance of relevant information and real-time visibility. This information is accessible from any device, whether a mobile device or desktop computer in a control room.

One downside may be that people are often resistant to change, adds Chu. When personnel are used to certain processes, it’s just human nature to have hesitation to adopt new systems. Fortunately, with time and proven success, most people see for themselves the immense value of an IIoT system and a connected enterprise, says Chu.

For the various customers who’ve implemented ICONICS IIoT-integrated solutions, personnel typically observe far more upside than downside, says Melissa Topp, senior director of global marketing at ICONICS. “In most cases, it helps if food and beverage manufacturing personnel are informed of what initial benefits to expect from IIoT integration, including ensuring IT equipment resiliency and scalability, future-proofing existing IT equipment and assured global access to accumulated data. In addition, food and beverage company employees feel empowered by their access to such data.” Tools, such as ICONICS GENESIS64, can help set proper access rights to such data, determined by employees’ roles and responsibilities.

Equipment maintenance is another area where IIoT technologies shine. Schneider Electric’s Najera notes that while it’s getting more difficult to find and retain skilled personnel, there are several tools to bring maintenance staff members up to speed quickly. IIoT technologies, such as EcoStruxure Augmented Operator Advisor, Schneider Electric’s augmented reality (AR) application for tablets, can do a lot to alleviate this burden by integrating step-by-step instructions, product documentation and service history records directly into the production systems to guide less-experienced workers in maintenance tasks.

The AR-based application should also help attract younger talents who are used to working daily with computers, mobile phones, social networks and advanced apps. Najera suggests that different digital technologies can help operations:

  • Mobile devices to provide operators real-time information from anywhere at anytime
  • Simulation and AR/VR to train employees on complex operations or to guide them on specific tasks
  • Workflow or business process management to help teams collaborate and standardize on best practices across organizations

Personnel are no longer tethered to their desks and PCs, says Don Pham, IDEC senior product marketing manager. Instead, they interact with IIoT data in varied ways: via desktop computers, through browser-based access to PLCs and HMIs, from any internet-connected devices or through smartphone apps.

This leads to additional advantages. In the past, remote access was only PC based and often an extra cost function, limiting its use. Now, remote access is available to all interested users within a company, making it useful for fine-tuning automation systems and lines and fixing problems remotely. Getting an alert on a weekend is never pleasant, but it’s better than not knowing there’s a problem—and being able to address issues remotely often saves a trip to the plant, adds Pham.

Sidebar: Security and IIoT to safeguard systems

Computer automation in food and beverage processing has been around for decades. In the past, the operational technology (OT) environment was segregated from its IT counterpart. Because of its separation, there was no need to build security into the OT environment. The advent of IIoT has contributed to the convergence of IT and OT, and in the process has exposed OT networks to IT security threats. In fact, OT environments are more vulnerable.

Unlike IT networks that have had security built-in their architectures for decades, OT has little to no security. External attackers can easily gain footholds into these largely unprotected environments and make changes to production processes that can affect formulations and more. Insiders could knowingly or unknowingly do the same. Even slight changes to production process settings can create health risks.

When using IIoT technologies, the proper security measures are essential to mitigate threats of external attacks, malicious insiders and human errors.

The following security capabilities should be deployed in an IIoT environment:

  • Monitoring the network for threats by employing policy and anomaly-based detection
  • Monitoring network devices for threats. Often, devices can become infected long before they start sending traffic. Some devices will even stay dormant and never send traffic. Being able to monitor the health and status of controllers and other devices reduces risks and provides visibility into active threats.
  • Automating inventory management to achieve a near real-time view of devices on the network, which allows for easier remediation when vulnerabilities are reported 
  • Integrating IT and OT security products to detect and prevent attacks from traversing the two environments. Enabling tools to collaborate and share information on threats helps an organization to proactively defend IT and OT networks.

—Michael Rothschild, Indegy

For more information:

Opto 22,
Process and Data Automation,
Rockwell Automation,
Schneider Electric,