In this article, SAGE Automation's Senior Systems Engineer, Stuart Mitchell, presents an interesting perspective on the future of Australia's food production technology.
Question: What are some of the new challenges Food & Beverage producers are facing and how is SAGE Automation helping to solve this?
Answer: Cost is the biggest challenge for our food and beverage clients by far. They've got to keep costs down to remain competitive and the rising cost of energy is especially pertinent for Australian manufacturers. Other challenges are in standards, quality and repeatability of process – food and beverage manufacturers need to know that they're making the same product, every time.
Following from this they need to respond to growing consumer demand for traceability; 'what's in the food I'm eating'? How do companies recall batches and communicate so quickly? Legislation and technology is moving towards allowing mass traceability from source to plate which means that manufacturers must start looking at what's available.
Finally safety is paramount. Food and beverage is incredibly diverse but essential safety best practices, risk audits and compliant control and automation equipment is across the board for manufacturers. SAGE conducts safety audits, and delivers a number of safety compliance controls upgrades and novel solutions for the sector. SAGE recently implemented electrical earth monitoring in flour and sugar tanks for an international biscuits brand. The tanks are monitored to the earth to detect abnormal currents in static electricity (a by-product of mixing process), warning operators of fire risk. Every SAGE project will typically address all or most of these challenges.
Question: What are some of the new efficiencies food production technology can offer existing producers?
Answer: Downtime and yield performance monitoring, quality improvements and traceability, and time and cost savings across the value chain — these are all key improvement areas that current control system and software technologies can offer food and beverage manufacturers today.
In particular, preventative and predictive maintenance has seen the most improvement of the past few years. More companies are reaping the benefits of sensor technologies as they come down in cost. Sensors that measure weight range or ingredient sample analysis can improve product quality while those that measure equipment temperature or vibrations inform operators if it needs maintenance.
An Australian biscuit manufacturer is using a dual sensor on its sugar grinding equipment. Vibration and temperature readings inform the plant if the equipment is operating at a safe rate, and predict when it will need servicing and/or replacement bearings.
Question: Where do you see food production technology heading in the next 5 years?
Answer: The explosion of the IIoT and IoT has really opened up the market. We are now seeing products and services entering the market that aren't being created or offered by the traditional major vendors. As a result there been a shift away from 'proprietary only' solutions. Companies want choice, and how they can more easily mix and match to suit their needs, for example companies are buying from different suppliers and selecting operational software that can be integrated with other business systems.
Our sister company Nukon is big in this integration space and we'll see more and more businesses demanding this 'connected enterprise' type operation. This approach along with innovative software, data collection and processing tools and cloud-based storage will meet the increasing demand for visibility and connectivity across the entire business.
Another more pressing issue for Australian manufacturers is in energy consumption. In order to mitigate rising energy costs manufacturers will need to invest more in energy consumption tools and technologies that, for example that tell conveyors to switch off when not in use. These technologies are readily available but we will see this space grow as energy becomes more expensive.
Some companies are already optimizing their use of alternative energy supply for production. For example, a milk processor is expanding its use of solar heat exchanger in pasteurization. Currently the solar exchanger is only used for the sterilization process. SAGE Automation is helping the business integrate the technology to perform more energy demanding processes paired with sound automation processes to switch back to traditional power if needed.