Food industry prepares for the digital age

Open systems will be key in enabling food manufacturers to benefit from Industry 4.0

In the digital age of Industry 4.0, compatible control systems are offering food and drink manufacturers the potential to transform knowledge into power, waste into efficiency, and loss into profit.

A white paper recently published by Siemens Financial Services, ‘The Digitalization Productivity Bonus’, suggests the UK food and drink industry could save $7.4bn–$11.5bn (£5.8bn–£9bn) in reduced production costs from conversion to digitalised technology.

The paper highlights areas across the supply chain where digitalisation can positively influence manufacture, from harvest forecasts, supply and demand predictions, traceability, temperature controls, overall equipment effectiveness and optimised labour to leveraging futuristic technology such as 3D printing to rapidly develop new product development.

Alan Hatch, account manager at Products4Automation (P4A), identifies the main aim for manufacturers investing in control systems as “attaining the process efficiencies defined by the ‘future’ plant”.

“This continual improvement of process optimisation is facilitated by advances in technology realised when applied to the concept of scalable plant architecture and intuitive control interfaces,” he says. “Increased efficiency translates to improved profitability, which is the economic driver for these developments.”

Hardware advances, such as increased use of programmable automation controllers (PACs), are influencing progress, says Hatch.

“Instead of utilising a slave programmable logic controller [PLC], these devices feature standalone embedded operating systems that allow full monitoring of areas from a single PAC.

The increased interoperability, equipment redundancy and data-handling capabilities of PACs ensure that they can support future process demands, due to increased operating capacity.”

P4A supplies Automation Platform.NExT, and Pro Energy.NExT, which is focused on reducing energy consumption in the UK.

Automation Platform.NExT is a control, visualisation and analysis open platform designed to facilitate “the processing revolution represented by the Internet of Things [IoT]”, says Hatch. “It is a future-proof package that is squarely aimed at facilitating future technologies and processes.”

Meanwhile, versatility, flexibility and diagnostic capabilities have contributed to rising sales of Festo’s CPX platform, claims the control and automation systems specialist. “The Festo CPX platform is open to all fieldbus protocols and Ethernet systems,” says Andy Macpherson, manager for food and beverage at Festo.

“For standalone and distributed intelligence applications, the powerful, embedded Codesys controller option provides Industry 4.0-compatible OPC-UA [object linking and embedding for process control unified architecture] connectivity,” he adds.

“The platform gives machine builders maximum flexibility and performance and can be adapted to link with any end user-specified PLC controller.”

Ease of integration (back to top)

Manufacturers hoping to update their control systems should carefully consider ease of integration, says Paul Wilkinson at Pacepacker Services. Replacement is often preferable to an upgrade as a more effective and timely option, he claims.

Pacepacker offers control systems for the loading of sacks, bags and cases of retail-packed produce, and palletising equipment and robots.

“We write the software and create the control system in-house so we have complete control over it,” says Wilkinson. “We don’t have a one-fit-for-all control panel.”

Having previously sourced from another provider, Pacepacker recently reviewed systems on offer across the market and made the decision to procure its PLCs from B&R Automation (recently acquired by ABB).

Its PLCs offer a range of improvements, says Wilkinson, across touchscreens, remote diagnostics and general quality, features and support. Pacepacker also builds in functionality and scope for variation when writing the software.

“Another thing people are looking for more and more is reduced downtime between products,” says Wilkinson. Pacepacker claims its PLCs allow manufacturers to rapidly change from one recipe to another, without any need for manual adjustment.

Chris Evans at Mitsubishi Electric highlights platform integration as vital to meet the needs of on-going advancements in automation technology, such as increasing use of small articulated-arms and selective compliance assembly robot arm-style robots to perform repetitive tasks in food and drink manufacture.

Using a common platform, such as Mitsubishi Electric’s iQ-Works software suite to programme the PLC, human machine interface, inverter, servo and robots reduces the cost of integration, he says.

A powerful PLC “can coordinate everything from guided operator pick to light systems that improve quality and throughput for manual workers, to conveyor systems, process plant, ovens and chillers, high speed packaging machines and robot cutting, packing and stacking lines”, says Evans.

Using one automation vendor can reduce installation costs, increase reliability and synchronisation, improve productivity, competitiveness and profitability, ensure transparency and regulatory compliance and help with benchmarking, he says.

Larger food and drink companies often favour a preferred manufacturer such as Siemens or Allen Bradley for PLCs, says Macpherson at Festo, due to compatibility with existing proprietary software licences, previous experience with control systems and difficulty in finding skilled PLC software engineers.

“With original equipment manufacturers, there is a higher level of flexibility as they are always trying to improve and develop their machines so they need to consider all manufacturers,” he says. “Plus, they have to build to specification, so this is where the main driver for innovation is coming from.”

Meanwhile, Hatch at P4A identifies Progea software products as being relatively simple to integrate into existing operations due to their modular construction and IoT-compatibility.

“Modular construction allows integrators to build an exact virtual replica of their operations, which is supported by intuitive graphics,” he says.

Modules can be expanded by adding plug-ins to cater for certain sections of the plant, ensuring that models are an exact fit for the processes taking place in real time.”

Custom projects (back to top)

Operators can, therefore, create custom projects with almost infinite scope for expansion or modification, Hatch explains. Input/output (I/O) server driver managers can seamlessly communicate with networking protocols such as OPC-UA for field devices such as EtherCAT, Konnex, Profibus, Profinet, Omron, Rockwell, Siemens and PowerLinK, he adds.

“With this extensive compatibility and ability to create entirely custom projects, integration times are slashed, offering increased cost-effectiveness.”

Elsewhere, Bürkert Fluid Control Systems challenges what it claims is a common misconception that introducing automation requires a wholesale revision of the manufacturing process.

“With sufficient planning during the initial stages of an automation project, it is possible to develop a plan that can be deployed in one area and then gradually rolled out to include other processes in due course,” says Mark Lilley, food and beverage manager at Bürkert.

“Adding an Ethernet module allows access to the process control system from remote locations and, if necessary, the ability to change parameters.”

While remote connectivity has been around for a while, many of its benefits are yet to be realised, says Wilkinson at Pacepacker. Granting remote access to engineers is “just a much quicker process, and can save money and downtime”, he says.

Pacepacker’s Pallet+ innovation lays claim to flexibility, agility, and significant time, energy and cost savings, enabling users to programme, change, store and recall new or revised robotic palletising ‘recipes’ using a more intuitive interface.

All programming can be performed on a control panel local to the machine or off-line via a separate computer while, if assistance is required, Pacepacker can create or re-programme palletising recipes for email to the customer or amend the system remotely.

Using Pallet+, manufacturers can reduce downtime between adjustments from 60 to five minutes or less.

“The knock-on effects of a machine being down for even several minutes to downstream processes and delivery schedules – especially in the fresh produce and food sectors – can have major cost and contract implications,” says Richard Gladwin, technical director at Pacepacker.

Open platforms (back to top)

One area of general agreement is that open platforms are the way forward. “Open communication between multiple devices expedites set up, but also offers integrators the chance to wholly customise a control system to offer the most optimum approach to processing,” says Hatch.

“This can generate increased cost savings, especially when applied to an operation that runs on fine profit margins.”

Macpherson at Festo expects, as Industry 4.0 develops, all PLCs will use open protocols. “It will be easier for PLCs to communicate with each other, and all of the additional sensors and vision systems,” he says. “In the future, they will have improved diagnostics, energy saving functions, increased data communication and increased flexibility.”

As Industry 4.0 and IoT continue to advance, control systems will increasingly be pushed to offer greater versatility, scalability and transparency, says Hatch.

“Accessibility via technologies such as cloud computing and smart devices will also increase. Plant managers can now access aspects of the plant anywhere an internet connection is present, ensuring that issues can be identified around the clock.

“Furthermore, visualisations and projects in future may be explored through 3D glasses or virtual reality headsets, allowing operators to intimately explore facets of the virtual plant to actively effect real world process efficiency.”

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