Why food manufacturers can have their cake and eat it too

The ability to be flexible is essential for any food manufacturer looking to withstand the current pressures of the industry.

With a global pandemic, Brexit, a national skills shortage, and the climate crisis, it’s never been more crucial for manufacturers to be agile and resilient. But how should they go about this in a way that doesn’t compromise quality, cost, or the environment? Siemens recently published an industry report which showed that manufacturers and machine builders require stronger partnerships, clearer expectations, and solid relationships with their external technology providers in order to be agile – but doing so can be a puzzle.

Our resident experts at Siemens, Richard Fear and Keith Thornhill, recently sat down to discuss our customers’ biggest quandaries around how to prioritize productivity and agility, whilst keeping sustainability, high quality standards, and cost in the balance.

Q: How important is sustainability for food manufacturers right now?

Richard: When it comes to the industry, you might be surprised to learn that sustainability is relatively low down the priorities list as manufacturers bounce back from the impact of the pandemic. The focus is still on getting back on their feet, with just under a fifth (19%) of businesses we spoke to ranking sustainability as their top strategic priority, while over half (51%) said the same about quality control – though those interviewed said they were likely to see sustainability as a growing priority in the years to come.

Keith: However, consumers are another story, with nearly half of consumers already actively choosing brands due to their environmental credentials. Combine that with upcoming regulatory changes such as the net zero target for 2050, it has never been more crucial to ensure the decisions one manufacturer makes has a positive environmental impact throughout the supply chain.

Richard: As with any new focus, there’s likely to be a few bumps along the way as sustainability enters the spotlight. For example, crisp manufacturers have recently come under pressure to move away from plastic and foil film packaging, with some considering a move to sustainable alternatives such as rice paper to reduce plastic usage dramatically. However, while good for the planet, this swap could put both quality and cost at risk if the properties of rice paper aren’t stress tested in a virtual environment prior to use.

Q: We’re cautious about being the ‘guinea pig’ for new methods of transformation. How can we be sure that the changes we make are low risk while yielding the results we want?

Keith: It’s understandable – and sensible! – that many manufacturers aren’t keen to take the plunge without knowing if the changes they’re making are fit for purpose. Making the wrong choices could be catastrophic, but thankfully there are plenty of ways to test any ideas you have in advance of committing to them.

Richard: By using a digital twin to test, validate and optimize, manufacturers have the agility to respond to these demands in a way that doesn’t compromise their quality, cost or level of output. Also, it can be a huge advantage if end user manufacturers and their machine builders are working together during product development. Traditionally the relationship has been purely transactional in terms of supplying and receiving a machine but if a machine builder can develop and share a digital twin of the machine that will be used to produce a new product, production behaviors can be simulated virtually before commissioning the machine in the real world. The digital twin is there to stay after commissioning and can be used to monitor and optimize performance, which helps machine builders to provide new value streams that benefit the end user.

Keith: And it’s not just packaging – virtual commissioning can be used to help you solve problems in any area, from finding ways to boost productivity to improving waste management. If you discover issues with any new plans, you can simply reconfigure your product or production plant in a risk-free virtual environment until you’ve established it is fit for purpose.

Q: Virtually commissioning is still a relatively new concept – is it effective and reliable?

Richard: Food manufacturers of all sizes are already utilizing digital twins to reduce time and risk when laying the foundation for innovation. For example, packaging provider TrakRap used a digital twin to test methods of taking heat and waste out of their packaging line. Since doing so, they’ve been able to develop a new line of orbital wrapping machines, and have helped the retailers reduce the level of packaging they use.

Keith: The technology is already there and trusted by many organisations around the world – it’s just a matter of adopting it. There’s no easier way to tackle the challenges of today and tomorrow. And if your priorities change, you’ll be able to instantly pivot to accommodate that.

Q: So, what’s next for food manufacturers?

Keith: We recommend food manufacturers maintain a continuous improvement mentality to change. Technology exists to help you reconsider how you respond to changing consumer pressures – and keep things like quality and cost in the balance.

Richard: And remember to collaborate with your innovation partners. If you’re a machine builder you can really help your manufacturers think through how they pivot and use their machines as a data rich, software entity to inform how they prioritize production, whilst keeping everything else in the balance.

To see the full industry report, click here, or get in touch with our experts to find out more.