Smart manufacturing in the food and beverage industry
Most of the smart factory discussion has centred around discrete manufacturing, but modern smart sensing technologies can also be applied to improve many aspects of the food and beverage industry, particularly for food safety and track and trace, improved packaging and new product opportunities.
The concepts of Industry 4.0, IIoT and ‘smart manufacturing’ have been gaining much press in recent times, particularly in relation to discrete manufacturing. Those working in an industry such as food and beverage — overwhelmingly driven by batch manufacturing processes — may find it difficult to see how such technologies could assist and improve their business. There are, however, definite areas in which these modern technologies can help modern food manufacturers improve efficiencies, market share and food safety.
Food recalls and traceability
A food or beverage product may be recalled for a number of reasons: complaints from consumers or customers, or by order of retailers or government. It might also be recalled as a result of testing and auditing at a food business or in the upstream supply chain (raw ingredients). Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ)1 classifies the types of problems that can occur as including:
- Microbial contamination: Pathogenic microorganisms such as bacteria, viruses or parasites.
- Labelling errors: Non-compliant labelling, incorrect food ingredients on the ingredient list, incorrect date markings or other food labelling errors.
- Foreign matter: Contamination with material such as glass, metal or plastic objects.
- Chemical or other contaminants: Contamination with substances such as cleaning products, pesticides, machine oil, etc.
- Undeclared allergens: Due to incorrect labelling, incorrect packaging or contamination of the product by an allergen.
- Biotoxins: Contamination with biological toxins such as histamine in fish and paralytic shellfish toxin in oysters.
- Other faults: Those not covered above, such as packaging faults or unsafe levels of additives.
In recent times there has been mounting pressure on food and beverage manufacturers to initiate and achieve product recalls in ever decreasing time frames, making effective product track-and-trace imperative.
Complete food traceability involves the tracking of a product’s history and sharing that data along the entire processing path — so-called ‘farm-to-fork’ or ‘paddock-to-plate’ programs. When it comes to food, knowing the exact source of where a raw ingredient came from is important should a recall be necessary. Studies have shown that the number of incidents of illness due to foodborne pathogens have been increasing with an increased consumption of fresh produce. The problem is that once an illness occurs in the community, it is often a complex and lengthy process to find the source of contamination. Traceability back to the source is therefore critical to shorten the time taken to find the source.
Modern smart sensing technology has a role to play in streamlining the entire farm-to-fork supply chain that makes identification and traceability as efficient and reliable as possible.
Technologies such as RFID are now making possible the tracing of raw ingredients from the original source. A good example is Japanese tomato processor Kagome, whose Australian factory in Echuca cultivates and processes tomatoes for food companies in Australia and overseas. Today, cultivating and processing tomatoes is automated, and it can be a logistical challenge to get the tomatoes from the field to the factory in the most efficient way.
Kagome operates 12 harvesters loading tomatoes into more than 300 bins, each with a capacity of 14 tonnes. Once a bin is full with fresh tomatoes, it is picked up by a truck and taken to a weighbridge close to the factory. As part of Kagome’s quality control process, three samples from each bin have to be processed in the laboratory to ensure the quantity and quality of the yield. RFID tags are attached to the tomato bins, accompanying them right from the start of the harvesting process, and allowing real-time identification of where the tomatoes in each batch come from. With reliable real-time data made available by intelligent identification technology, Kagome has the ability to make better decisions, increasing productivity and efficiency, and making their products traceable to the source.
Consumer habits are changing
How consumers shop is changing, and many consumers today are turning to their smartphones for on-the-spot product research. A research report in 2014 from Deloitte Consulting2 found that 84% of retail store visitors in the US use their smartphones before or during the visit to the store for product information and those that do convert to buyers at a 40% higher rate.
Retailers and manufacturers are therefore having to come up with new ways to engage the consumer at the point of sale so they can influence the purchase decision. That means packaging, shelf labelling and point-of-sale displays that can communicate with consumers through their smartphones. Some companies are also turning to technology to protect against product tampering, counterfeiting and theft. Some companies have an interest in extending the shelf life of fresh produce and reducing food and packaging waste.
A key enabling technology for all these applications is printable electronics (PE) — inks which can conduct electricity, made from materials such as graphite, silver and copper — that can be printed on a substrate thin enough to have negligible impact on package size. The substrate can be rigid, flexible or even stretchable, such as paper, plastic, fabric or glass.
PE can be used to create discreet components such as displays, conductors, transistors, sensors, light-emitting diodes, photovoltaic energy capture cells, memory, logic processing, system clocks, antennas, batteries and low-voltage electronic interconnects.
An example of a company utilising such technology is Canadian company NFC Authority, which is providing printed near-field communication technology3. Pilot trials began in June 2016 with three target customer groups — wine, craft brewers and craft distilleries. NFC Authority’s solution combines a wireless tag with a printed antenna design and software application with a cloud-based platform. Consumers don’t have to install an app — they just need an NFC-enabled device. They tap the bottle to confirm its authenticity. That same tap reveals more information on the product and offers digital engagement opportunities like video, loyalty, ratings, reviews, etc. With each tap, the brand owner can collect and analyse data such as user demographics, location, likes, social shares and number of taps through NFC’s cloud-based analytics tool.
NFC Authority’s printed electronic tags come on industry-standard rolls for adhesive lines that are already equipped to place tags. The tags are already pre-encoded with the hardware to scan and register them.
Smart labelling and packaging is only as good as the available information. While collecting customer information is useful, providing up-to-date information to customers depends on that information being available from the manufacturer. Today’s smart sensor technologies in the food and beverage plant are at the core of enabling up-to-date product information to be presented directly to the consumer, including raw material provenance, sustainability data and allergen information.
Is ‘batch size 1’ feasible for food and beverage?
Perhaps the Holy Grail of Industry 4.0 is the concept of a single-unit batch. Smart sensor technology coupled with adaptive automation systems will be key to achieving this goal, in which manufacturing plants are flexible enough to adapt to individual customer requirements. This might not at first seem particularly feasible for batch-oriented manufacturers such as those in the food and beverage industry.
Some food companies have tried to achieve this and failed — one notable exception being German breakfast cereal manufacturer mymuesli GmbH4, which allows customers to build their own muesli recipe that is then packaged with their own customised labelling and shipped to them direct. Of course, simple mixing of dry ingredients makes such a customisable food product feasible, where other types of food or beverage may not be so easy to manufacture in a single-unit batch.
One area that may be more promising is customisable packaging. An example of a step in this direction in packaging is that it will be possible to pack items of differing sizes (such as different sized beverage bottles) on one system using smart sensor detection with automatic format adjustment. The system continues running automatically and does not require line shutdowns to change batches. Or, like the customised muesli, perhaps customers will in the future be able to order customised, and personalised, labelling and packaging for their products, offering a product differentiation that some manufacturers may want to take advantage of — which ultimately would be a market-driven decision.
The data is the important thing
Depending on how the data is to be used, the data may be stored and used locally, or stored and processed by a cloud service. In the case of cloud applications, local consolidation of data at the source can improve data efficiency.
Smart sensors that incorporate their own smart logic can reduce the data demand by providing only necessary information as desired. In the bottle-packaging example, the smart sensors also assist in automatically reconfiguring the process, keeping the running production data within the packaging line for best efficiency. Only final production data should need to be forwarded on for batch track and trace.
Reliable and unambiguous identification of goods in the production process and supply chain is a vital prerequisite for efficiency and full traceability. Whether it’s a single product on a conveyor or data about thousands of bottles of beer that are transported every day, the status of all recorded data must be easy to retrieve and analyse. This is where the cloud comes into play, allowing data to be collected from multiple locations, analysed, and further read and shared from still other locations.
While the concept of ‘smart manufacturing’ may not intuitively seem to apply to the food and beverage industry, the opportunities for improving food safety and quality, as well as improving customer engagement, mean that smart sensing and smart manufacturing technologies should be high on the agenda of any forward-looking food or beverage manufacturer.
1. Food Standards Australia New Zealand, Food recalls, <<http://www.foodstandards.gov.au/industry/foodrecalls/Pages/default.aspx>>.
2. Deloitte 2014, Deloitte Study: Digital influences more than $1 trillion in retail store sales, <<https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/press-releases/digital-influences-in-retail-store-sales.html>>, Press release.
3. NFC Authority Inc. 2016, <<http://www.nfcauthority.com>>.
4. mymuesli GmbH 2016, <<https://uk.mymuesli.com>>.
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