Technology

How Food and Beverage Companies Can Use Networks and Data To Their Advantage

In part two of our series on automation in food and beverage, we look at how companies like Chobani and Kraft Heinz are using plant floor data to improve their systems.

By Pan Demetrakakes, Senior Editor

This is part two of a 3-part series on automation on the food and beverage plant floor. You can read part one at Digital Brains Make Machines Work Smarter

Once automation is networked, it opens the possibility of using data from the plant floor at a higher level. Such data can be stored and analyzed for purposes including enterprise-wide control, planning, scheduling and long-term strategy, using various kinds of software. The most basic kind of higher-level software is a supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system; other levels ascend from there. For further details, see part three of our series, The Rough Hierarchy of Industrial Software.

“One of the big trends on SCADA systems is to bring more people in the business system into the processing system, so more metrics are brought to bear in understanding the process better from a manufacturing standpoint, and also understanding the costs better at the upper levels of management,” says Shawn Ferron, project manager at Calcon Systems.

That’s what is happening at Chobani, the company that pioneered Greek yogurt. At all three of its production facilities, Chobani uses Ignition, a high-level SCADA software from Inductive Automation, to make plant-floor data available at all levels, including the executive suite. The result, company officials say, is that information from operations technology (OT) and information technology (IT) are merged, giving the same, clear view of plant operations across the enterprise.

As upper-level business systems become more integrated with those closer to the plant floor, one consequence is increased pressure for floor-level systems to use standardized communication protocols, as the higher-level apps do.

“On the IT side, there is no room for proprietary protocols,” says Allen Tubbs, product manager for Bosch Rexroth. “Open-source protocols are the only type available that are feasible in 99% of applications. It’s just a function of how the IT industry grew faster than the OT industry. This aspect of the IT world is starting to have pressure on the OT side as data collection moves deeper and deeper into the device world.”

One development that will help facilitate this kind of data collection has to do, again, with Ethernet.

Ethernet TCP/IP (transmission control protocol/Internet protocol) is the de facto communications protocol for much of the Internet. In an industrial setting, it can be used, often in conjunction with industrial Ethernet, to flow data from automation systems to business applications.

“I believe that EtherNet/IP is well on its way to being the de facto standard in industrial automation,” Gellner says. “It allows a much higher level of interoperability when everyone’s hardware speaks the same language.”

Internet in the plant

After using Ethernet TCP/IP, an Internet-based protocol, for systems within a business, the next step is to leverage Internet technologies on the plant floor. That’s where the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) comes in.

Simply put, the IIoT allows industrial devices to send and receive data using the same Internet technologies we all use. Practically speaking, the IIoT means this with appropriate cybersecurity measures, data can originate from, and be sent to, anyplace that’s accessible by the Internet – which means pretty much any place.

The IIoT is cutting-edge technology, and in food & beverage, its development is nascent.

“IIoT is still in its infancy stage in the food and beverage industry relative to other industrial sectors,” says Sam Cece, CEO of Swift Sensors. “There is, however, strong interest and desire to add additional insight into the manufacturing processes with IIoT technologies such as wireless sensor monitoring and alerting.”

Theoretically, the IIoT has the same functions and capabilities as a wired industrial network. They both serve to send, receive and accumulate data; only the means of data transmission and storage are different.

“What does IoT mean? It means getting the data, putting it in the historian [database] and using it for decision-making,” McEnery says. “Plants have been doing that for years. We just never called it IoT.”

But there’s an important difference: Unlike wired networks, IIoT setups are not generally used for direct process control. They’re not yet robust enough, they present security issues, and most plant operators simply don’t trust them enough to let them directly control machinery.

Instead, the IIoT is being used for non-production-related issues. One of the most prominent is maintenance. The IIoT opens up new vistas of networking and communication that will enable plants to switch from reactive to proactive maintenance—intelligently and economically applied.

IIoT can be used to tie together maintenance sensors, attached to machinery, in a wireless network. The sensors constantly update the status of the machinery and send alarms when a parameter reaches a danger point. To achieve a comparable level of preventive maintenance, technicians would have to continually make rounds taking readings and entering them into a spreadsheet or other data repository.

Kraft Heinz is using a wireless system for maintenance on its product refrigeration system at its plant in Champaign, Ill. Sensors from Swift keep track of temperatures in the plant’s coolers; other Swift sensors are attached to the motors that run the compressors on the coolers’ refrigeration systems. All this data is relayed on an Internet connection to a dashboard that’s visible on PCs, tablets and smartphones.

ABB supplies a line of IIoT-enabled sensors under its Ability offering. They can be attached to motors and bearing housings to monitor temperature, vibration and other parameters. Information flows into a website, maintained by ABB, accessible through an ordinary Internet connection, while alarms can be set to reach any smartphone or other mobile device.

“I like to think of it as a FitBit with the connectivity of a ringing doorbell,” says Steve Shadow, ABB’s industry sales director for food & beverage.

Another maintenance capability that the IIoT opens up is allowing equipment vendors, and others, to monitor, diagnose and even repair equipment remotely.

“Focusing on the ‘Internet’ in IoT, it allows for connectivity outside the plant,” says Bob McIlvride, director of communications for Skkynet, a provider of Internet-based industrial services. “This means that vendors of food processing machinery can be connected directly to their equipment on the plant floor, allowing them to monitor it in real time, to do trouble-shooting, preventative and predictive maintenance remotely. This cuts down on costly site visits, while increasing equipment uptime.”

The IIoT allows remote connectivity within a plant, too. Smartphones and other mobile devices can be turned into monitors that read and display parameters of all kinds: equipment status, line speeds, flow rates, tank or hopper levels – basically, any relevant factor that can be expressed as a number or binary condition.

“The ubiquity and convenience of smartphones and tablets, and the habits of the younger generation in using them, are currently forcing automation engineers and managers to incorporate them into their systems,” McIlvride says.

These kinds of remote setups could, in theory, be used to control equipment as well as monitor it. But that’s not being done very much and probably won’t be, at least in the food & beverage industry, for several reasons. Most human-machine interface (HMI) software is too complex to scale to devices like smartphones; a screen attached to a machine provides a simple, stable interface; and wireless transmissions of any kind present security issues.

Security, in fact, is an overriding concern with the IIoT. Hackers pose the same risks for industrial applications as for any other use of the Internet: stealing data, imposing ransomware, or just generally interfering with operations.

Security has to be built into both devices that use the IIoT, and upper-level applications like MES or ERP that accept data from them. This means that firewalls and other security architecture have to be integrated into them; merely relying on the encryption of a virtual private network, as many businesses do for other Internet-dependent functions, is not sufficient.

The equipment used in food and beverage plants can and will always be improved, but most such improvements will be incremental. Operational technology has the potential to exponentially increase the power of automation by making equipment communicate, across the plant floor and beyond.