Moving from food producer to a smart food factory pays dividends

Moving from food producer to a smart food factory

Food producers often operate without industrial networks connecting machines and systems across the factory floor. However, as demand increases, so does the need to improve productivity. For companies considering a move to becoming a smart food factory, network connectivity across a production site is the first step.

Food producers currently span the full automation spectrum. They span huge volume beverage production and packaging plants to artisan food producers doing everything by hand. Moreover, the large section of the industry sitting in the middle has been slow to adopt smart factory technology.

There are several reasons for this, but chief among them is usually identified as investment cost. The industry typically runs on high volumes and small margins. Supply contracts can be short, and seasonality makes it hard to build large processes flexible fluctuating demand. The cost argument however is often the easiest to overcome.

Becoming a smart food factory

Becoming a smart food factory does not always mean one giant change. Implementation can be progressive providing that the vision of the final goal known from the beginning. Small production robots are a good example and often used in stand-alone packing applications. Often used for jobs that human operators find tiring and repetitive, the ROI for a packing robot can be very quickly.

Furthermore, robots are increasingly used in process and assembly situations as they are easier to programme. They are more flexible and can work alongside human operatives easily without cumbersome traditional physical guarding systems.

Introducing basic automation is scalable and the costs are manageable when considering the benefits. Once you have connected one piece of equipment to a control and monitoring platform – and it is giving you good quality production data that allows you to control and optimise the process better – then there is a strong driver to keep going and include everything in the system. Creating a fully smart food factory, which will ultimately be more flexible, easier to control and more competitive.

Integrating new machinery

Integrating new machinery onto the automation network is also straightforward as it tends to be highly automated already. Updating older equipment is frequently easier than people think and Mitsubishi Electric works with a wide range of system integrators. They can implement track and trace systems to batch control and adding smart servo systems to existing mechanical plant machinery.

Once automated, it is easier to meet product variations on-the-fly allowing users to meet changing demand. Smart sensors and systems can also monitor variable in-feed materials and allow for greater consistency in product quality and customisation.

It is an interesting time for food producers and there are many other solutions available to them if required. For example, edge computing, predictive maintenance and OEE benchmarking for example that can improve profitability and scalability. Ultimately however, for many SMEs it is about taking the first step. This is much easier with help from supplier partners and user-friendly solutions from manufacturers like Mitsubishi Electric.

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