The Evolution of Industrial Automation in the Food and Beverage Industry

Hard benefits long have provided the financial justification for plant automation projects. As information technology plays a larger role, food companies are groping for other ROI metrics.

By Kevin T. Higgins, Managing Editor

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Somewhere in the future, the grizzled maintenance engineer leads his apprentice into the food plant’s electronics boneyard in search of some salvageable parts.

In a dusty corner is a stack of obsolete parts. “Hey, Gus, what are those?” the apprentice asks, pointing to a flat screen monitor and wiring wedged between a fax machine and CD player. Smiling in recognition, the engineer replies, “That there’s an HMI screen and Ethernet cable, Sparky.”

The story of industrial automation is an evolutionary tale, from relay logic circuits to PLCs to SCADA systems and ladder logic to Windows-based software to agnostic systems. Chucking the HMI at this time would be premature, but the groundwork is being laid under the wide umbrella of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).

IIoT and Industry 4.0 describe today’s front lines in plant automation. Whereas the prior battleground was on the operational front, IIoT skews toward IT and communication flow between machines and professionals and professional to professional. Mobile devices and remote access are the exciting parts, and wi-fi networks and cloud computing are the enabling technologies.

The goal is to facilitate information sharing and help a manufacturer run faster, better and cheaper. That’s a big shift from operational automation that produces many soft benefits but is justified on the basis of displaced labor: If the capital cost is equal to the labor cost over three years, then the ROI is 36 months. Faster communication may mean reduced downtime and less physical movement, but those are elusive benefits to quantify.

The new automation battlefront also requires a significant upfront investment, and that gives food and beverage manufacturers pause. Digital field devices and machines with IP addresses are part of the necessary infrastructure, along with a reliable and secure communications network. “It’s expensive and fairly complicated, but it’s not exactly science,” the former CEO of Siemens Digital Factory told Industry Week last year. “It’s doable, we know how to do it, but we have to pay for it and we have to find the people to do it.”

One of the most ambitious IIoT efforts in food to date is SugarCreek's "new" plant in Cambridge City, Ind. A $130 million gut-rehab that will have its ribbon-cutting ceremony this month, the plant stretches SugarCreek out of private-label bacon and meatballs into sous vide, primarily for foodservice.

A wi-fi network, simplified radio dispatch and response, web conferencing, energy monitoring and management and 250 video cameras are among the project components. Real-time locating systems to track objects and people are a key element of a high-performance work team initiative.

The IIoT components represent a $6 million investment. Even a one point increase in yields would more than offset the expense, although CIO Ed Rodden believes tying any ROI metric to essential infrastructure misses the point. “A manufacturer today must have an infrastructure that enables the broad use of technologies to support the business, from collaboration to data collection,” he maintains. “We don’t view (IIoT) as any different from other infrastructure required to be in the business, such as refrigeration in a food plant.”

Sky high sausage

With few exceptions, food companies are taking a wait-and-see approach to production facilities untethered to hard-wired data networks. Which is not to say they are not exploiting opportunities to incorporate state-of-the-art automated processes.

A case in point is OSI Industries’ dry sausage plant in West Jordan, Utah. Opened five years ago, the facility makes extensive use of robotics, with automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated storage and retrieval systems (AS/RS) shuttling racks of product between stuffers, drying houses and other points of production.

When OSI embarked on the project, more than a quarter century had elapsed since a new U.S. dry sausage plant had been built. Facing a dearth of new sales opportunities, the domestic vendor base had atrophied, causing OSI design engineers to look abroad for the latest technology, according to Larry Glaser, assistant vice president and director of operations support at Aurora, Ill.-based OSI (

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