Jan 28

Do Smart Machines Mean Smarter Food?

Whether a food company is striving for smart factories or simply wants the agility to respond to new-product demands, it is commonly perceived that automation can help.

How does automation replace the skills honed over decades of food manufacturing history? Mixers and ovens have the same functionality today as they did decades ago, but with the addition of automation advances you get a night-and-day comparison in terms of performance.

The programmable logic controller or PLC sells in its millions every year and provides the logic needed to safely and efficiently run a machine. But it is becoming increasingly apparent that PLCs are obsolete technology.

The Achilles heel of automation is loss of flexibility, an easy trade-off when production schedules are static. However, the trend in food and beverage is not static, in fact it’s the exact opposite. Changes in packaging, product variation, ingredients at short notice all make for flexible requirements. The flexibility challenge is further complicated at companies with multiple facilities, none of which is ever identical. All of this combines to work against operational efficiency. Installation of PLC systems can be achieved by local contractors who operate nationwide.

But leaving aside efficiency, in a world where we seem to move rapidly from one food scandal to the next, traceability and engaging with customers is becoming increasingly important to food producers on both large and small scales.

Many operators have noticed recent changes in how the food industry is operating. “There are lots of small companies out there who want to make their systems in food manufacturing more personal”.

Recently one food manufacturer launched an experiment that matches raw material genealogy with product serialisation. Working with PLC designers their manufacturers are printing QR codes on their food. “How is this new” we hear you cry? QR codes have been with us for a while now? But this time its different-by scanning the code with a smart phone, shoppers are linked to a website where details on where the raw materials were harvested, where the grain was milled, which farm the eggs came from, which plant processed it and when and from where the finished good was distributed. This “digital passport” embedded in the code on the packet ostensibly advances food safety and answers the “where did this my come from?” question posed by consumers.

The flexibility of modern PLCs needs to be improved in order to allow quick changes in this kind of system as a response to changes in the supply chain.

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