The food and beverage industry needs reliable and consistent automation to plug leaks that threaten the supply chain. Whether this means predicting conveyor belt collisions, tweaking temperatures or personalising products, it requires smart technology to make production more productive, efficient and agile.
But what does this technology look like? And how can we expect it to boost productivity in the future? We sat down with Keith Thornhill, Head of Food and Beverage (F&B) at Siemens, to discuss the future impact of technology on the industry.
Where do you see the biggest technological advancements taking place?
The real innovation we are seeing at the minute is in logistics-based technology and connectivity systems.
We’ve already seen some unbelievable logistics-based technology being deployed at conglomerates, where each of their systems has the potential to disrupt the market. With these kind of companies, they don’t just buy shiny robots and automation technology and call it a day; their onus is having a clear vision on building an ‘interconnected’ business which includes both humans and robotics.
They use all sorts of air traffic-controlled swarm robotics, to pick deliveries in real-time, for instance. That’s just one example of how innovative thinking in the supply chain can disrupt the market and, as a result, create unprecedented customer value.
Is there any specific technology at the minute which can ‘connect the dots’ for F&Bs?
Yes. The technology at the minute is centred around creating a “digital thread” from the beginning until the end of production.
If you look at a food factory, there is the product R&D stage for the formulation, and then the scale up into production, packaging and logistics.
This is when you’ll be asking questions such as: How many can we make an hour? How many do we have to produce to satisfy the order? Will we make any money? You’ll also be planning the artwork, labelling and branding at this stage; we digitalise all that so that the entire process can be clearly visualised, ratified and mapped out.
With this digital thread, however, you can check that all these areas will go to plan before any resources are used in the real-world. You can predict that you’ll be doing 100 packs per minute and you’ll be satisfied that you’re operating as efficiently as possible.
Any problems you run into during the digital planning stages will have their own digital footprint so you can easily identify them. The difference between what should be happening and what is happening should now be one and the same. If it isn’t, then you have to continually improve the process in order to rectify the larger problems.
This is what we mean by ‘closing the loop’ and is the basis of our Digital Twin philosphy at Siemens.
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How do you see technology being used in F&B in the future?
The whole point of technology is that it should make humans not just approach tasks differently, but make them think differently too.
Unfortunately, a lot of F&B companies will take a piece of technology and use it to simply make a task a little bit easier. This is fine, but it will only create a gradual change to how a business performs. What technology should be able to do is radically change how we do things. As a sector, I’d say we’re a long way off where we need to be.
As it stands, I’m not too sure there are many companies with end-to-end connectivity as their vision. They know technology is going to make a difference, of course, but they only see it in terms of how that is going to benefit their next delivery, rather than how it will affect them in five to 10 years’ time.
There is still the issue of cyber security, of course…
This is a very crucial topic and is one that is often highlighted as a reason not to adopt a ‘Digital Enterprise’ phlisophy. But like with most things, the only way to gain confidence is by doing the act and witnessing the benefits.
That’s why businesses need to put the correct infrastructure in place to build a more secure digital space which will, in turn, allow the business to flourish. The secure supplier also needs to understand your business vision, and should be on hand to lend their expertise whenever necessary (for example, when guiding you through the technology deployment stage).
To this end, Siemens have already begun maximising their cyber security and, as a result, we are the leading automation firm to be accredited with a cyber security TÜV SÜD standard. We also have our own Product CERT, where customers can access all the latest information on Siemens products.
Today, we employ nearly 500 people on cyber security to ensure the most secure digital systems are available across in the world.
With so much data flying around the factory floor, how do you propose F&Bs use this data to their benefit?
Through the cloud. At Siemens, we have MindSphere, which is our vessel for storing information. The collection of data is very basic, but it’s what we do with the data that can be really transformative.
With MindSphere, we take the data and analyse its impact in terms of how each element reacts to one another. We can take data from the cloud to look at how the weather patterns that day affect how fast bread proves, for example, where the hot spots in the oven are, or the skill level of the operators who are working.
Using this information, it can see links between the different elements and locate issues before they occur. With a system like this, you can truly start to optimise your production line and, then, become more profitable with little intervention.
You talk about how technology can take the guesswork out of production, but changing personal preferences might make this a difficult task. How do you see technology working around individual customers in the future?
Customisation will be huge in F&B. Online food shopping is just one of those experiences, where you, the customer, are putting your individual data into a system. The retailers then use this data to offer you more of what you like.
In a typical shop, on the other hand, they stock only what they think the majority of shoppers are interested in buying. While this isn’t game-changing right now, we can see that, in the future, it might become even more granular than just online food shopping.
Personalised nutrition could be a huge initiative in the future, where data is used to give consumers a bespoke product. For instance, those with diabetes could get specialist products for their specific condition from any outlet, all at the click of a button.
Do you think that F&B manufacturing will be entirely on-demand in the future?
It has to be. The whole supply chain at the moment is based around over-production.
In food production currently, we are wasting around 25% of crops, purely because we are creating products without a specific end-user in mind. Goods are being designed based on last year’s trends, and that’s just not going to satisfy the consumer who is constantly changing their preferences.
In fact, with society being the way it is and trends changing so much more rapidly now, it’s difficult for any manufacturer to truly be ahead of the game. The only way to conquer this is with real-time data collection.
Not only will this help manufacturers more accurately forecast what is going to happen in the supply chain, it will also give them access to individual customer needs, thereby ‘closing the loop’ on production. Without real-time data collection, we will inevitably continue on the way we are going: with unsustainable waste mountains stifling productivity.