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What’s Next in Food and Beverage Plant Technology?

July 24, 2023
Beyond current automation, start thinking about augmented/virtual reality, data analytics, remote access and artificial intelligence.

The digital revolution is here, robotics use is on the rise and automation has already arrived in force.

So where, pray tell, will the innovative minds in the food & beverage industry take us in the future? What advances will revolutionize operations down the road, leaving plant managers and engineers to wonder how the industry ever managed to produce high-quality, safe food in the years prior?

Food Processing has written about the Food Plant of the Future (March), artificial intelligence (May) and advances in packaging (this month) — all of which dip heavily into emerging technologies in their own right. For this article, we wanted to dig deeper into some of the finer-tuned opportunities awaiting processors at or over the horizon.

Augmented/Virtual reality

AR and VR concepts have been attractions at trade shows for years now. Recently, as capabilities have increased, these solutions have begun to find practical application for processors and suppliers alike. Today, application of AR and VR revolves around suppliers and processors working together to troubleshoot or repair any issues with equipment.

“Augmented reality has really become an active aid for the production team as they go through their business, to where, if there’s an issue with a machine, they don’t need to go back to their main system to make adjustments to settings,” explains Tom Egan, vice president of industry services for PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies (www.pmmi.org). “You’re looking at five or six years of huge changes in the technology, and it’s not based on something that’s so far out there that the average worker couldn’t understand it.”

Engineering and plant design stand to benefit from the advances in AR/VR as well, with the technology capable of replicating a processing line and helping engineers determine the types of equipment and how it all will fit together in the best possible way. In addition, Egan says, today’s programs can suggest solutions to users while they’re designing the plant or line within the 3-D world.

“Imagine taking the design to the operations team and saying, ‘Instead of looking at a flat screen with a 3-D image on it that you can rotate, we’re going to be in the layout, and if we need to make a change, we can make it right there while we’re standing in the layout,’ ” Egan says. “That’s how it has always been done, but in a less interactive, less visual format on a screen or piece of paper.”

Data interfacing

Egan has already seen CPG companies changing the way their team interfaces with the data the processing lines collect and send their way. Tablets and mobile devices have taken over many aspects of the human experience, and those interfaces are coming to a processing plant near you on a much larger scale. Data and software design will need to be approached differently.

“The keyboard will no longer be the primary interface tool; the ability of a line worker to say, ‘I no longer need to go to an operator station where there is data and a keyboard,’ is a transformative change,” Egan says.

“They’ll have all the information they need in hand as they walk along the line — pulling up different points of data, maybe ordering a replacement part or supplies, or sending a notice to bring in the next load of labels. There will be no need to go to an operator station for those types of tasks.”

In addition, the ability of devices to transfer voice to text — and also playback any recorded message or dictate a typed one — could really transform the communications capabilities within plants, even the loudest ones.

Remote access

Of course, the digital revolution and the remote-work movement (for office-based employees) means remote access to data and information systems becomes much more important. In turn, that can open the door to cybersecurity dangers, which cannot be taken lightly.

PMMI, for one, has worked to help industry learn about remote access options and walk through solutions to reach those goals through peer-to-peer leadership networks such as the OpX Leadership Network. Still, depending on the department, some portions of the food and beverage industry have been more open to it than others, Egan says.

“The biggest element of the remote access piece is the slowly increasing acceptance with both the IT and OT groups at consumer packaged goods firms,” he explains. “OT has typically been pretty open to it for a while, but IT hasn’t been as ready to open up access as much.”

Data analytics

Collection of data points is one thing the industry has become quite good at doing. The question, as is the case in many industries, is, “What are you doing with that data once you have it?”

The good news is, many in the food & beverage industry saw the need for experienced data analysts coming. Egan says that the major CPGs have the analysts in place.

The issue, however, is whether they have the food and beverage processing chops to make the right decisions. Experience makes all the difference, he says. A good analyst can tell a processor that when data points 7, 11 and 17 are all negative, the processor has a big issue to address — but because they typically don’t have a production background, they cannot help solve the problem.

“Combing real-world processing experience with the analysis is ideal, to tease out the important data and apply that to the business operation and adjusting the process accordingly,” he says. “We need analysts that can say that these data points were negative, and here’s what it means and how to fix the issue.”

Artificial intelligence: Controls and enhancements

There is no shortage of discussion of the future potential of AI in the food & beverage processing industry. No longer is AI the thing of science fiction — machines and equipment are learning, and the industry needs to prepare. However, as the desire for AI technology skyrockets, Egan says he is most interested in recent discussions about implementation of guardrails to ensure the use of proper coding for business processes and even some of the automation technology.

Egan believes AI, properly applied to the advanced automation present in plants (and in the future) can help processors make bigger and better changes to their throughput and yields without any major line changes.

“When you’re able to go from 100 items a minute to 115, in the same footprint just using improved technology, that’s a 15% improvement without a major change — and that’s a big deal,” he concludes. “But that’s a finer area where a processor can implement some real enhancements in technology and automation to gain yield, while most would not think about it because it isn’t as broad or interesting as other solutions.”

About the Author

Andy Hanacek | Senior Editor

Andy Hanacek has covered meat, poultry, bakery and snack foods as a B2B editor for nearly 20 years, and has toured hundreds of processing plants and food companies, sharing stories of innovation and technological advancement throughout the food supply chain. In 2018, he won a Folio:Eddie Award for his unique "From the Editor's Desk" video blogs, and he has brought home additional awards from Folio and ASBPE over the years. In addition, Hanacek led the Meat Industry Hall of Fame for several years and was vice president of communications for We R Food Safety, a food safety software and consulting company.

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