The modern food manufacturing industry is awash in data.

Production data. Utility usage data. Data from each step of the supply chain, from each step of the production process, from the SCADA, the BMS, the PLCs, the sensors, the equipment. Data everywhere.

That data is valuable, because it helps manufacturers make better decisions. But there’s a big difference between collecting data and being able to actually use it. If you don’t have a system in place to be able to understand what the data is telling you, then you’re going to be overwhelmed by it. 

“There's so many hundreds of pieces of equipment on the plant floor, in the food industry, that it's so hard to manage, and really be proactive,” says David Penta, President and CEO, Deville. “We think a solution that can be customized to the customer’s unique environment and is fully managed will benefit smaller producers.”

Those challenges are exacerbated by ongoing labor shortages and the never-ceasing demand for food and beverage products. Large companies have the resources and capabilities to capture, manage and put into action what the data is telling them, but smaller and mid-size companies often struggle to do so because of the cost or manpower involved. That hurts, because data doesn’t just help optimize the production process. It helps manufacturers with everything from maintenance scheduling to addressing labor shortages. 

“What these smaller producers don’t realize is that most of the pieces are already in place for digital transformation. One only needs to tap into the data well and make sense of the dataflow, and advances in cloud and IIOT technology is making this possible,” says Penta.

Understanding the needed capabilities to manage and effectively use data unlocks a world of options for food and beverage manufacturers. 

Maintenance management

Every manufacturer has a maintenance plan in place, but it’s not necessarily optimized. If you’re working with equipment that can’t report on its status, then you can find yourself in the dreaded “wait until something breaks, then fix it” situation. You can’t schedule when a part is going to break, so if a machine goes down in the middle of a production run, you’re looking at unplanned downtime, which is a big hit to the bottom line. 

It also creates a challenge to ensuring you have enough maintenance coverage. If you’re short-staffed in your maintenance department and a machine goes down, your maintenance people may already be dealing with another issue, which slows response time and extends downtime. 

But if your equipment can report its status and send alarms when something’s going wrong, it can be caught early and handled under a preventative maintenance program. That not only allows you to make fixes outside of production runs, but also helps alleviate short-staffing issues. That’s not to say it will solve them entirely; rather, it allows you to schedule maintenance to fix problems while they’re still minor and relatively easy to fix instead of having to scramble to fix a machine that goes down in the middle of a production run. 

“It will alleviate the labor issue because when you schedule maintenance, and the uptime is at its maximum, then you don't need as many people running around putting out fires,” says Penta. “It makes maintenance more strategic.” 

This also allows for maintenance to be done properly. Everyone has a horror story about the time something broke and there was no replacement part in hand, so a solution had to be improvised. Sometimes it works, but it usually doesn’t, or at least not for long.

“Maybe it'll go up for the rest of that shift but the next shift it'll go down again,” says Penta. “So, it becomes a vicious circle of chasing your tail trying to make sure the equipment is running the way it should be.”

Necessary infrastructure

Being able to use data effectively—regardless of the application—requires an effective infrastructure. That, of course, requires investment. For smaller and mid-size companies, that cost can be scary.

“There is a belief among smaller producers that these data systems require big initial investments; this is no longer the case, and cloud infrastructure has made this possible. Depending on the application, it can be achieved in weeks or months,” says Tony Riso, VP of Technology (IIOT), Deville.  

For a long time, automation systems were closed loops, which meant that when you purchased an automation system, you had a limited number of options for equipment that would work with it. But modern automation systems are interoperable, which opens up more choices; the flip side is that having equipment that will work across different control systems adds complexity and makes it harder to customize.

“The solutions being offered range from single applications that will never fit your unique manufacturing environment to custom enterprise-class solutions that come with a large outlay. We think there is an unmet need for smaller producers who want a customized, fully managed solution,” says Riso.  

The key to combatting that is equipment that has a flexible technology stack built in, allowing it to integrate with different automation systems and be adapted to the specific needs of a manufacturer. Instead of a square peg in a round hole, the equipment fits and works in a way that allows manufacturers to collect and manage data throughout the production process.

“It's all about getting the data, making sense of it, and then creating the tools and the applications at the other end,” says Riso. 

Looking forward

Data is and will continue to be an integral part of the modern food manufacturing process. While clipboards and spreadsheets were good enough at one point, they no longer are, and manufacturers have to adapt to that. 

Being able to do so offers a number of advantages, but manufacturers have to be aware of how systems will and won’t work together to give them what they need to make better decisions. If equipment can be customized and adapted instead of relying on off-the-shelf hardware, then manufacturers can truly harness the power of data instead of drowning in it.

“Industry 4.0 and plant floor data analytics is to food manufacturing as GPS and radar were to aeronautics—it is a complete game changer that allows smooth sailing in your production environment with less fires and more efficiency to the profitable destination,” says Penta. “For this reason, not only will our products be enabled for digital transformation, but we are launching a fully managed digital service for our clients.”