Food Manufacturers Swell Aisles at Automation Fair

More than 13,500 manufacturing professionals, many from food and beverage companies, converged in Chicago Nov. 18-19 for Automation Fair, Rockwell Automation’s annual event that combines hands-on labs and technical sessions with conventional trade-show exhibits.

Manufacturers usually have specific production issues they are trying to resolve when they attend events like Rockwell’s, and there were 165 suppliers of motors and drives, sensors and instruments, system integration and other services and products on the floor who may have the answer. Labs on new sensing technologies, basic controller programming, integrated motion and other topics gave attendees an opportunity to gain familiarity with the technology of automation.

There also were plenty of opportunities to buttonhole process experts with Rockwell and other vendors, both on the show floor and the food & beverage forum. “The connected enterprise” was the fair’s theme, a marketing speak term destined to join Industry 4.0, Internet of Things and other catchphrases. There’s really nothing new under the sun, Rockwell’s Mike Hannah candidly admits, but lower prices and greater robustness in the sensors and other field devices that are the infrastructure of the connected enterprise are making the technology more affordable and reliable.

As a manufacturer of motors and drives, Rockwell is putting money where its mouth is. According to Turner, global OEM segment business manager-process, the company has reduced its components’ inventory to 82 days from 120 while accelerating order fulfillment by the customer’s requested date to 98 percent of orders, up from 82 percent. Turner says Rockwell has achieved 45 percent productivity improvements annually in each of the last three years by monitoring the quality of incoming parts and immediately notifying vendors when their shipments were beginning to drift out of spec. Instead of discovering problems after a component is fully assembled, corrective action is taken prior to assembly.

Technology providers often draw a direct line between product track & trace and their solutions, though the challenges in the food industry’s complex, decentralized supply chain defy simple solutions. Nonetheless, product recalls are a major concern, and their cost is significant. According to Joe Whyte, Rockwell solution manager, 78 percent of food companies have experienced 1-4 safety recalls in the last five years, at an average cost of $30 million per recall. Serialization could narrow their scope and cost, and making timely information available about where and when an individual product was manufactured could assure shoppers. “Consumers want to scan a bar code and know if that product has been recalled,” he told attendees at the food & beverage forum.

Simply identifying the source of food borne illnesses, let alone affected products, can be a huge challenge, as recent E. coli O26 illnesses linked to Chipotle Mexican Grill outlets demonstrate. Chipotle closed 43 Oregon and Washington stores Oct. 31, “even though only eight restaurants have drawn concern,” the firm announced at the time. By Nov. 19, the 21 illnesses that prompted the closings had increased to 45 individuals in six states, including California, Minnesota, New York and Ohio, according to U.S. FDA and the Centers for Disease Control. Whole genome sequencing established the genetic link between the illnesses, which resulted in 16 hospitalizations. Expanded testing of dairy products and fresh meat and produce at Chipotle have yet to establish the source of the problem.

The answer requires more than additional investments in technology. Better reporting of machine performance might be a more realistic expectation for that spending. According to Greg Turner, Rockwell’s global OEM segment business manager-process, machine builders are concentrating on easier data reporting on machines’ energy consumption and performance deviations to plant information systems. Populating distributed controls, MES systems and PLCs with the data can help food companies improve OEE tracking and predictive maintenance.

That assumes a degree of standardized software that usually doesn’t exist in today’s manufacturing environment, Turner allows, but that is industry’s direction. Machine coding is an obsolete skill, he says, being replaced by object-level coding to configure machine applications. Senior plant engineers will carry machine-coding expertise into retirement, replaced by young engineers comfortable with object coding and appreciative of the machine reporting potential it provides.