Precise control over food and beverage production is in the spotlight as health-conscious consumers are increasingly paying close attention to the ingredients and labeling of their products. So, to protect consumers, governments are closely regulating the traceability, manufacturing, and labeling of food and beverage products. Meanwhile, increased competition and narrow margins in food manufacturing are making efficient production essential in driving ROI and business viability.

These converging factors are amplifying the importance of close monitoring and analysis in food and beverage supply chains.

Forward-looking enterprises are harnessing this momentum and creating more intelligent supply chains through embracing automation and the industrial internet of things (IIoT). By investing in modern production equipment and IT architectures, food and beverage manufacturers can maximize the speed and consistency of their production lines.

Stratus Technologies, which has been known for cannot-fail solutions for process controls and computing systems for some time, provides virtualization and downtime prevention technologies for various industries, including food and beverage. Stratus has also been creating IIoT and edge server computing solutions that can withstand the harshest environments industry can throw at them and keep on working.

I recently spoke with Jason Anderson, VP of business line management at Stratus Technologies, to find out how IIoT deployments can have a major impact on a food and beverage producer’s bottom line. Andersen is responsible for the strategy and roadmaps for Stratus Technologies’ Products and Services, supporting implementation partners in a wide variety of processing and manufacturing environments.

FE: How can IIoT technologies help food processors to ensure food safety?

Jason Andersen: IIoT offers food and beverage businesses extremely beneficial connectedness, data collection capabilities and speed. By connecting devices throughout a production environment to collect operational data, the IIoT can simplify food safety controls.

An example from the consumer Internet of Things (IoT) helps to illustrate the point. Consumers are now purchasing IoT-connected kitchen appliances like smart ovens that allow them to remotely monitor and adjust their cooking by changing convection and temperature. The benefits of the connected IoT extend to grocers as well, who might use smart refrigerators to ensure inventory is properly stored and managed.

IIoT can play a similar role in maximizing food safety through remote temperature and conditions monitoring. Producers can use this information to automate slow, manual monitoring processes of different refrigeration units and thus increase production efficiency by saving time and labor. Even more importantly, automating food safety controls can help manufacturers protect an enterprise from the reputational damage of catastrophic brand recalls.

FE: Can IioT provide real-time quality control analysis?

Andersen: IIoT can help food manufacturers guarantee their food is free of any hazards and meet regulatory challenges. Traditional hazard analysis requires manual collection and lab testing of food samples. In the future, automated devices at the network edge will test samples in-line and provide real-time data from chemical and spectroscopic analysis. Once again, IIoT devices will help producers save the time and energy required to test food samples, helping products get to market faster and fresher.

FE: How does real-time analysis minimize potential decontamination costs?

Andersen: Analyzing food production in real time can also decrease the response time in potential decontamination efforts. This dramatically reduces the food and water waste costs associated with quality problems. The cost of decontamination efforts is lower when quality issues are caught earlier in the production process; as potentially unsafe food move throughout a facility, so do potential contaminations, requiring more expensive corrective efforts.

How can IIoT help processors comply with regulations?

Andersen: Another major benefit of the IIoT is the ability that it can significantly streamline regulatory processes in food and beverage production. Using IIoT devices at the network edge, manufacturers can collect, analyze, and transmit production data in real-time. This real-time data can help production plants identify necessary interventions to rectify food safety and increase their response time.

By helping anticipate regulatory noncompliance, food and beverage manufacturers can ensure they avoid regulatory fines and protect their brand from reputational risk.

FE: What about improving processing consistency?

Andersen: Particularly in food and beverage processing, efficient, consistent production is essential to ROI. By automating vital processing systems, producers can improve product consistency by minimizing the variability of a manual production process.

With edge-enabled IIoT devices, however, manufacturers can yield even more consistent products. By connecting production devices and empowering them to share data in real-time, food and beverage producers can detect data anomalies that signal production issues. This allows producers to then take measures to course-correct ongoing production, minimizing both product variability and waste.

FE: Edge-enabled IIoT devices typically need an “edge server.” Does the edge server reside on premises at a processor’s location? What is its role in the IIoT architecture?

Andersen: In IIoT processing environments, key production applications can’t tolerate latency because it causes processing to slow down. That said, bringing server resources closer to the devices working at the edge becomes the best way to achieve lower latencies.

Edge server architectures are very different from data center or cloud servers. The typical data server lifecycle is five to six years, while in the cloud, it’s closer to two or three years since operators refresh servers often as technology advances. At the edge, however, server lifecycles are far longer, lasting seven to ten years, since field systems need to be designed and serviced for maximum life. For example, system manufacturers need to plan ahead to ensure that spare parts are available for the expected life of edge servers.

FE: It would seem that an edge server needs 99.999 percent uptime to fulfill its role. How do you achieve that kind of uptime?

Andersen: Key processing applications can’t tolerate latency when there is a large number of sensor or device driven data. We have many key production apps running today with no latency issues because they are not stressed enough. IIoT and Digital Transformation would cause these to be stressed.

Hardware is advancing rapidly—through a variety of different technologies, modern servers can truly minimize downtime by detecting potential failures in real-time and ensuring continuous availability of critical applications. Today’s best servers use automated security layers and extremely fast processing units in self-monitoring and self-diagnosing systems that eliminate guesswork and help servers run without additional maintenance. Additionally, hot-swappable subsystems and components identify when they need to be replaced, while virtualized applications can run simultaneously on a server, minimizing the burden on any one system.

Traditionally, these capabilities were only used for larger control room environments, but now they’re making their way to the plant floor and other remote, rugged and otherwise challenging locations.

FE: If a food processor’s connection to the Internet is lost for a period of time, what, then, is the role of the edge server? What happens when the Internet connection is restored?

Andersen: Edge servers actually help protect networks from failure—total internet network crashes will not originate on an elite edge server, as many possess self-protecting systems specifically to prevent these types of abnormalities. Additionally, the rapid development of 5G networks is creating brand new possibilities in edge manufacturing by allowing devices to communicate without central wireless networks.

5G’s ability to create secure, software-defined networks with both high bandwidth and high performance with unmatched flexibility is a tantalizing possibility for manufacturers. The sheer scope of the projected upgrade of 5G will minimize the impact of internet failure.

FE: How should processors prepare to implement an IIoT system? What steps should they take?

Andersen: First and foremost, all IIoT projects need full buy-in and mutual alignment on the desired result from all stakeholders in both the operational technology (OT) and IT teams. Similarly, one team should have clear ownership over the project’s maintenance and upkeep. Establishing a long-term vision is the first step in any successful automation project.

Next, while some hardware is remarkably easy to install, businesses should carefully vet service providers that can help them install critical equipment. Most food and beverage producers lack the technical expertise to install systems entirely on their own. Choosing a third-party service provider that can be trusted to perform repairs and necessary maintenance is essential to allow processors to focus on their operations.

FE: Are there any other concerns when installing an IIoT system? For example, skills of installers, cybersecurity, etc.?

Andersen: Training plant-floor personnel in system implementations can be difficult. Teams implementing new IIoT projects should ensure that staff have sufficient resources and clear knowledge-sharing plans to minimize the impact of turnover on OT and IT teams.

As in the rest of the technology industry, cybersecurity is an essential consideration for edge computing deployments. Companies should address both digital and physical threats when developing their security strategies. Generally, custom-designed security software is the best way to eliminate digital risks. Physical protection of infrastructure is more difficult to achieve, but measures like identity control and access management can protect against physical attacks that limit supply chain efficiency.