Automation has been a cornerstone of industry for quite some time, but food and beverage manufacturing has run behind other industries in implementing fully automated production.

It’s starting to catch up, and it’s doing so by studying what other industries are doing and adopting strategies that can apply to manufacturing processes regardless of what is being manufactured. Food and beverage can present unique challenges because the product isn’t always a uniform size and shape—think something like chicken breasts compared to a non-food product such as oil filters—but there are ways that automation and other manufacturing processes and strategies can be implemented successfully. 

There’s also a cultural shift underway, says Fred Fontaine, chief commercial officer, E Technologies Group (a CSIA Certified Member). 

“If you look at U.S. manufacturing as a whole, across all industries, food and beverage manufacturing is a bit behind the curve in terms of fully embracing automation and robotics,” says Fontaine. “There’s traditionally been a reluctance to invest in automation, partially due to the cost of the investment, but also with fears of automation replacing jobs.”

Those fears and the challenges of food and beverage production have kept the industry behind the curve. Most processors have a story about the legacy systems they still use, or how they just recently switched—or haven’t yet switched—from Excel sheets, pencils and clipboards to a data collection and management system that lets them use data instead of just collecting it and filing it away somewhere in case it’s needed in the future. 

That has led to the industry facing a lack of universal solutions because it hadn’t demanded them the way other industries had, says Art Sebastiano, Chief Information Officer, Ken’s Foods. 

“This industry is, what I would say is, behind the maturity curve relative to the discrete processing, discrete manufacturing industry,” says Sebastiano. “There wasn't something out there because there's not an agreement on standards and business processes, and practices on how we're going to interact and interface as business partners, whether that be with the manufacturer to the supplier, or from the manufacturer to the distributor, or from the distributor to the customer.”

All of that is changing. As better solutions become available, industry attitudes change and processors bring in people from other industries to implement solutions, the food and beverage industry is starting to get up to speed. Processors are now proactively looking for solutions to collect and manage data, automate processes wherever possible and examine every aspect of their operation to see where it can be improved. To help with that, they’re looking to other industries for lessons learned and insights they can use to improve their own operations.

The importance of intelligence

As previously mentioned, different sizes and shapes of products can create challenges for processors that want to automate. But once a product is in a package, that concern goes away because even if the product itself isn’t a uniform size and shape, the packaging is.

That means a number of technologies and automation strategies translate directly to food and beverage, says Fontaine. He cites barcoding, conveyors, sortation, palletizing/depalletizing and automated guided vehicles as examples.

What all of those things have in common is they don’t really change based on the characteristics of the individual product. Once something is in a package, it’s just another box, so to speak. Conveyors and sortation systems can easily handle different shapes or sizes of products, whether they’re in a box or not.

That allows processors to take advantage of technologies such as barcoding that not only offer improved operating efficiency, but also accuracy and better tracking of ingredients and finished products. Consider Fontaine’s example of a company he works with, which cans vegetables and stores them in a warehouse for a certain amount of time for food safety purposes. They are then labeled and sent out for distribution. If a forklift operator puts a pallet of unlabeled cans in the wrong place or retrieves a pallet from the wrong place, that can lead to the wrong label for the items. Although it’s likely not a safety issue, it’s at best an embarrassing mistake for a company.

Ken's Foods

“In the April episode of the Food Engineering podcast, Editor-in-Chief Casey Laughman speaks with Art Sebastiano, CIO, Ken's Foods, on applying lessons from other industries as part of a digitalization strategy.”

“Next thing you know, mom is dumping her cans of candied yams in the pot for Thanksgiving dinner, and out comes green beans,” says Fontaine. “That’s likely happening to other people as well, who will complain to the store, who will complain to the distributor, who will complain to the manufacturer, etc.”

Those situations can be avoided through better management of products as they make their way through the production process. If those cans of green beans are on pallets that are bar-coded and must be scanned in and out from their storage locations, then that’s a fail-safe against them being inaccurately labeled as yams. It’s the same basic concept as parts tracking for auto manufacturers.

Building the case for upgrades

Legacy systems and equipment are somewhat common in the food and beverage manufacturing. Even more common is legacy thinking, where companies do the things the way they do them because that’s the way they do those things. Those ways of doing things are successful to a certain extent, or they would have been abandoned. But they aren’t necessarily forward-looking.

Sebastiano experienced that when he joined Ken’s Foods. Ken’s Foods was founded in 1958, when the salad dressings at a Framingham, Mass. steakhouse became popular enough to warrant a retail operation. Sebastiano joined the company in 2016 after almost 30 years in IT roles in other industries, bringing an outside perspective to a food company that had been operating for more than 50 years.

Ken’s Foods had its systems and processes in place that worked well enough, but they weren’t up to the standards needed going forward. The company operated on a combination of homegrown applications and the classic Excel sheets. The first challenge was to identify what was needed and the best tools to meet those needs. 

“When I got here, the question was they knew they needed to replace their legacy custom applications that really weren't integrated at all with something different, and they needed to have better tools in place, but they didn't necessarily know what that looked like,” says Sebastiano.

That doesn’t mean those legacy tools were bad. Ken’s Foods was a successful company, and the custom-developed solutions were meeting current needs. But they weren’t conducive to future growth, says Steve Carr, President and Founder, Crawford Software, which was the integrator on the project.

“There were a lot of homegrown systems, a lot of custom-developed solutions that worked very well for what Ken’s did at that moment in time, and didn’t necessarily support ease and growth,” says Carr. “So we started going down that path to understand what they had now and what they wanted to do going forward, with a goal of looking at a standard ERP system that would fit current requirements; allow them to be implemented easily with minimum disruption; but at the same time lay that solid core foundation for being able to expand not only in the ERP system, but let the business expand and grow. Not just grow with it, but help encourage that growth.”

Ken’s Foods had tried implementing new systems before, but without a clear vision of what the needs were and the best tools to meet them, it had failed and employees had returned to working with what they knew. Sebastiano and his team dealt with that by taking a step-by-step approach to implementing a SYSPRO ERP system, starting with financials. By focusing on one area to begin with and successfully integrating it, they were able to have something to show skeptical employees as they moved on to the next stages of the project.

“In any type of a journey, success is really what you're looking for because it gets other people to lean in, allows the culture to start to shift and be more open to change because they realize that they can make it through to the other side,” says Sebastiano.

One critical component of the ERP system implementation has been understanding that manufacturing comes first, even if a new system is being put in place. While there will of course be times when a line or a facility needs to be taken down to install and test a new system, Ken’s Foods is in the same situation as other food and beverage companies: If product isn’t being made, neither is money. So Sebastiano and his team focused on implementing the system in a way that minimized production downtime and disruptions while still keeping to the project timeline. 

As the company has worked its way from stage to stage of the ERP implementation, employees have started to gain an understanding of what the end goals were, how the new system can help meet them and what it could mean for their ability to do their jobs in a better, more efficient way.

“It wasn't just ‘I need a better application because I need a better application,’” says Sebastiano. “This is now part of a process. It's part of a plan where we're going to feed this data and use the applications that are best suited to analyzing and managing and reporting on the data than what we had done in the past.”

Centralized data

More and more food and beverage companies are exploring digital transformations in some form, says Kevin Dherman, chief information officer, SYSPRO. While part of that is due to the natural progression of businesses adopting new technologies as they become available, another part of it is processors looking to other industries and realizing there are operating processes and philosophies that can be applied to food and beverage.

“Some people will look at digital transformation as oh, let’s implement a box, or let’s implement AI, or let’s implement IOT,” says Dherman. “But actually, people are looking at digital transformation as moving off Excel, right?”

As Dherman points out, centralized data has become a critical piece of operations for a number of reasons. With more employees working from home due to the pandemic, having Excel files flying around via email can lead to two different people looking at two different sets of data when they’re supposed to be looking at the same thing. Centralization also helps processors standardize operations across multiple facilities to ensure that each location is operating in an efficient manner.

“Everybody’s looking to cut costs,” says Dherman. “But in terms of cutting costs they don’t want to disturb their customers, because obviously you want to cut costs but keep customer satisfaction. So what are the other ways that food manufacturers can cut costs?”

Focusing on improving operations and showing successes is an important aspect of getting employee and leadership buy-in for new implementations and upgrades. Josh Eastburn, director of technical marketing for Opto 22, a partner member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA), cites the example of Marigold Manufacturing Corporation (MMC), which owns the Mama Sita’s brand of Filipino condiments and sauces.

MMC hired P&E Automation Technology Solutions to set up utilities monitoring systems at a new plant. P&E turned to Opto 22’s groov EPIC edge programmable industrial controller to collect and deliver utility data to a central database, as well as provide it in a mobile form for plant supervisors. MMC liked the results of that project so much that it hired P&E to integrate all of the plant’s PLC systems, regardless of manufacturer, into a single production control and monitoring system. Now, the company can manage its production process as a single system.

“Marigold can program the system using one engineering package, and as the facility expands, additional equipment can be added to process lines and integrated into this system regardless of PLC brand,” says Eastburn. “In time, they intend to build an end-to-end business intelligence system.”

Adopting and adapting for the future

Part of the relatively slow adoption of automation in the food and beverage industry has to do with concerns over robots replacing employees, says Fontaine. But when done properly, food and beverage processors are learning the same thing other industries have learned: automation and robotics supplement workforces; they do not replace them entirely. 

Fontaine cites the example of food processors having a hard time recruiting and retaining employees to do repetitive jobs that often lead to repetitive strain or other injuries. Those jobs also have a high turnover rate and often create headaches such as OSHA incidents or workman’s comp claims.

“This creates a revolving door of employees and that means constant recruiting, hiring, training, and human errors associated with high turnover,” says Fontaine. “Not to mention the administrative costs.”

But if those jobs are simply doing the same thing over and over, they can be automated or filled by robots. That doesn’t mean human employees aren’t needed; operators are still necessary to run machines or work with and program robots. And equipment needs to be maintained and repaired, creating demand for employees with maintenance skills as opposed to low-skill labor such as picking and placing.

So far, Ken’s Foods has automated its Southborough, Mass. warehouse, and is working on doing the same with another warehouse in Georgia. Product in the automated warehouse comes off the production line and moves throughout the warehouse without the need for employee handling until it’s loaded on the truck. But that doesn’t mean there’s no role for employees; materials such as packaging and ingredients still have to be received, managed and loaded at the proper steps of the process.

Looking ahead

As more companies in the food and beverage industry move off of legacy systems and methods, they’ll face the same growing pains other industries have faced as they went through similar transitions. The most common—and potentially most fatal to the success of a digital transformation—is getting employee buy-in. It’s natural for employees to be resistant to major changes in how they do their jobs, even if it can be shown to be a better way.

“The hardest part is the implementation,” says Carr. “Getting the business to participate, to move away from, what have I done the last 20, 25 years, 35 years, whatever that number may be, and embrace something new and change.”

To combat that, Carr and Sebastiano focused on breaking the project up into small pieces that could be implemented step-by-step, with each successful piece being a building block for the next piece. That helped get buy-in from not only management, but also line employees that the system would be a tool they could use to do their jobs in a better way, not a threat to their employment or a confusing, complicated system they wouldn’t be able to master.

“When you see and have done things in different ways, in different industries, you bring a different perspective in, but you also have to realize that whether you're right or wrong is really not relevant,” says Sebastiano. “What really is relevant is getting people to buy into what you need to do and that's where the culture aspect becomes the most critical thing to any implementation that you're going to do. You can follow the checkboxes, you can follow Waterfall or Agile methodology, but at the end of the day, it's the culture that needs to accept it, they need to embrace it, and they need to move forward with it, and you need to figure out how to go about doing it differently each time in order to be successful there.”

For more information:
Crawford Software,
E Technologies Group,
Ken’s Foods,
Opto 22,