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Balancing Production Optimization in a Changing World

An explosion in SKUs, workforce challenges, and increasingly complex supply chains require food and beverage makers to turn to technologies such as advanced data analytics, flexible conveyors, and augmented and virtual reality to improve efficiencies.

virtual reality
To simulate on-the-job experience, workers can access activities through virtual environments.
Photo courtesy of Honeywell.

A growing global trend around healthier living not only has nutritious foods becoming more popular, but also has consumers demanding cleaner labeling and more sustainable packaging.

“Plant-based ingredients are on the rise. We’re looking for more functional foods that can help us be healthier and help us have better diets,” says Donna Ritson, president of DDR Communications. “We also want consciously sourced and ethically produced foods.”

Add all of these demands to the growing set of trends that has food and beverage producers scrambling to fulfill the ever-fickle needs of consumers. They still want convenience. A trend toward single-serve packaging continues. The supply chain continues to evolve toward e-commerce and food delivery services. But the latest developments are driving even more demands, according to Ritson, who recently presented a look into a new industry report from PMMI Business Intelligence, 2019 Trends and Advances in Food Packaging and Processing. Download the report at

Companies are under pressure from these changing consumer trends. “What we’ve seen in the past years is this explosion in SKUs,” says Steve Mulder, in charge of consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry business development at Rockwell Automation. “The consumer base is more diverse in terms of what they want, how they want it, where they want it.”

With all the varying demands from consumers, SKU activity continues to increase at food manufacturers.With all the varying demands from consumers, SKU activity continues to increase at food manufacturers.Chart courtesy of PMMI Business Intelligence, 2019 Trends and Advances in Food Packaging and Processing. Download the report at

“The SKU proliferation is real,” Ritson also notes. “Long runs are a thing of the past due to increasing SKUs. As consumers, we want flavor choice, smaller pack counts, different packaging configurations—these are all driving an increase in SKUs.”

Flexibility is essential

There is a need for machine builders to provide systems that are easy to change over from one package size to another or from one packaging material to another, Ritson emphasizes, to react to these changes happening in retail. “It needs to be quick and efficient and keep that line running,” she says. 

Manufacturers used to change a line once every day and a half. Now they’re facing six changeovers a day, Mulder says. “OEE (overall equipment effectiveness) went from the 90s to the 60s,” he adds. “Six changeovers a day doesn’t work anymore.” 

Machines need to be flexible and redeployable—not only able to handle a broad range of package sizes, but also modular enough so that, if a product fails, a manufacturer is not looking at an unused asset. End users need to know that they’re being as flexible as possible to react to changing market needs, Mulder says. “What do they do with those assets if they don’t need them anymore?” he asks. “The more flexible they are, the better their chance of reusing that equipment.”

Robots are helping with that flexibility, Mulder adds. “They’re creating a more flexible machine,” he says. “We’re looking at how to help OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) understand the power of taking fixed automation and using a delta robot instead for more flexibility. You can have a new size or a new package, and you don’t have to throw the machine away.”

Flexible conveyors

Flexibility is also coming in the form of material handling systems with more independent stations so that they’re not so tied down to traditional bottleneck issues, and they can also adapt quickly to changing needs.

Rockwell’s iTrak intelligent track and MagneMotion systems allow for independent control of multiple movers on straight or curvilinear paths. OEMs are able to use both continuous and intermittent motion in the same machine, Mulder explains, so that they’re not pitch-dependent.

Likewise, B&R has its AcoposTrak, in which parts and products are transported flexibly from one processing station to another on independently controlled shuttles. The smarter motion of these systems maximizes availability of the line, provides faster changeovers, and improves overall equipment effectiveness.

filling machineThe eXtended Transport System (XTS) enables new design concepts for food and beverage applications, such as filling bottles in groups and capping individually in the same system.Photo courtesy of Beckhoff Automation.Beckhoff Automation designed its eXtended Transport System (XTS) specifically with flexibility in mind. The focus is on higher production efficiencies and a smaller footprint. The material handling system incorporates all the advantages of both rotary and linear motion to provide asynchronous motion between stations, notes Jeff Johnson, mechatronics product manager for Beckhoff.

The company’s eye was originally on the packaging sector, where the XTS technology could be useful in high-speed continuous-flow applications. But now it’s being used in more than 1,200 applications worldwide across a range of industries.

To explain the benefits of the motion system, Johnson describes a typical filling machine with traditional rotary cables, where everything is evenly spaced and gets indexed at the same time. Because the filling process takes the longest, it dictates the speed of the whole line. “With the XTS, now we can index the bottles to the fill station. Now you can double up, have four filling stations at a time. At the same time, you can process bottles, cap, stage for packaging—simply doubling up on that fill station,” he explains. “From input to output, it looks like continuous flow.” The redesigned filler has a 30-50% reduction in footprint, more efficiency, and a higher production rate.

In another example, AMP Automation is using Beckhoff’s transport technology to accommodate different pack counts and lengths on the fly. “The product comes in randomly, but now you need to space it evenly for the flow wrapper or downstream processes,” Johnson says. “It can register the product coming in, grab it off the conveyor, and now speed up or slow down as needed.” A big advantage of that, he adds, is that machine changeover can be done on the fly, in theory enabling a lot size of one.

XPlanar is another motion technology from Beckhoff that’s in the early stages of development, with starter kits out to customers in Europe. It uses levitating movers to provide free motion across a base of tiles. The big advantage here, Johnson explains, is that stations now have completely free motion over the tiles.

With free-floating movers, there’s also no wear and no contaminants, making it suited for food applications and washdown environments and particularly suited to those ever-changing demands. “Maybe I have four or five ingredients, but they’re put in randomly,” Johnson says. “I can bypass a station if I don’t need that particular ingredient. The mover can jump out, pass that station, and move on to the next location. I don’t have to sit and wait for a station I’m not going to use.”

machine improvements chartMore flexible machines with faster changeover capabilities top the list (by a considerable margin) of desired machine improvements for food manufacturing.Chart courtesy of PMMI Business Intelligence, 2019 Trends and Advances in Food Packaging and Processing. Download the report at

How to make use of data

Flexibility isn’t the only way that food and beverage producers are trying to improve efficiency. PMMI’s recent food study showed an emphasis on “data collection and the whole Internet of Things and how it’s driving production schedules, impacting labor, and impacting maintenance,” Ritson says. “It’s the smaller and medium-size companies that are really looking for help on implementation, and how to use data in a meaningful way.”

Certainly, having data and understanding what to do with it are two different things, and it’s not often easy to get from one to the other. “That’s the challenge because there are a lot of disparate systems,” says Marcus Parsons, director of food and beverage for automation supplier Emerson. Data might be coming from sensors on the equipment; it might be coming from spreadsheets. “We’re aggregating all this data, pulling it all in to understand causes and effects. But some things are difficult to model.”

For Emerson, this is where its recent acquisition of KnowledgeNet (KNet) software from Tunisia-based Integration Objects comes in handy. KNet uses advanced statistical and machine learning algorithms to extract, clean, transform, and analyze operational and manufacturing data. In particular, it is well-suited to root cause analysis, Parsons says, pulling data from many different sources.

Emerson’s KNet Analytics collects and interprets operational data and information across plants, detecting abnormal behavior, as is useful for predictive maintenance, but also predicts future performance to maximize plant efficiency. And the same type of artificial intelligence that can help predict when a machine might fail can also help maintain the quality of batch processes, Parsons notes. “Batches often have degradation of quality over time,” he says. “This software can predict, based on the status of the system, how successful that batch will be.”

Digital twins boost efficiency

Increasingly, data gathered is being used to create a digital twin of a device, the equipment, or a process. Essentially, a digital twin represents a physical asset, such as a device or piece of machinery, and the processes taking place within those assets. The concept supports a number of objectives—from optimizing processes without risking the assets or processes themselves to training operators before machines even hit the plant floor.

“You get more speed to market by modeling what impact changes will have before you put them into place,” Parsons says.

In one example, an Emerson customer was upgrading one of its lines. “They used the twin to help simulate what that new process would look like,” Parsons explains. “They cut six weeks off their startup time.”

In this vein, Rockwell bought Emulate3D about a year ago and is now seeing an explosion in the use of its technology. Emulate3D’s software digitally simulates and emulates industrial automation systems. Simulation improves system planning and decision-making, and then emulation trials test the control system before installation.

“I can take a new custom machine and virtually give it to programmers while I’m still bolting things together,” Mulder explains. “It can take three or four weeks out of the delivery schedule, and the programmer can start working on it earlier.”

The workforce (augmented) reality

augmented realityAugmented reality can help maintenance workers identify and understand what needs to be fixed on a machine.Photo courtesy of Schneider Electric.A different type of simulation is helping manufacturers tackle one of the thorniest issues in manufacturing today—the workforce challenge. Increasingly in the food and beverage industry, as with many other industries, there are more manufacturing jobs than we have people to fill them.

The labor shortage is a key topic at all roundtables, Ritson says. “We know there’s a skills gap,” she says. “We have to go back to the training needed, the adaptability of machines, and the automation of manufacturing moving forward.”

Augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) are helping to get workers trained and bridge the skills gap. “The aging workforce challenge is one that every company is trying to address. Augmented reality is one of many tools with this scope in mind,” says Simone Gianotti, EcoStruxure industry deployment leader for Schneider Electric. It’s a great tool for shortening the knowledge transfer time and bringing new employees up to speed faster, he adds.

Schneider Electric offers AR capabilities as part of its EcoStruxure platform, the company’s answer to the Internet of Things. Manufacturers are typically looking to invest in AR technologies for two key reasons: reducing downtime and dealing with the effects of the aging workforce, Gianotti says. “There are a lot of very, very good technicians; engineers that know the equipment. They can spot a fault or issue a mile away,” he says. “But they’re getting promoted, maybe leaving the company, or maybe just retiring.”

The challenge in this case is saving this tribal knowledge and transferring it to new hires. AR can help create procedures and transfer that knowledge as quickly as possible. If a new hire needs to change a belt on a machine, for example, the AR system could take them through the procedures, step by step.

Even for employees that aren’t new, using AR in maintenance activities can help reduce downtime. Whether a maintenance activity is planned or unplanned, it’s not uncommon for half of the time spent not actually doing the work but instead looking for the necessary information, such as electrical schematics, drawings, manuals, etc. “One benefit augmented reality brings to the table is it allows all these documents to be literally at your fingertips,” Gianotti says. “Of course, it saves a ton of time.”

AR could also be used in maintenance situations to help locate problems in a plant, Parsons points out. “It could navigate you to a point in a plant where the problem could be,” he says. “Or you could call an expert and troubleshoot online.”

Wear or carry?

That AR could appear on a cellphone or tablet, or it could be through goggles or glasses. “It’s easiest to use a cellphone,” Parsons contends. The goggle platform could work better in some cases, but “still has to evolve a bit.”

Wearables need some continued development, Gianotti agrees. Schneider Electric has mostly limited its AR software to tablets, but expects to come out with wearables in the not-too-distant future. This decision has been first and foremost about safety, he says. “Until this moment, the technology of wearable glasses was not safe, according to industry standards,” he says. “The difficult issue is that a lot of wearables have lateral limitations. You could use them for training or to show at a trade show with no issues. But to use them in a plant with forklifts…it’s probably not what you want.”

A tablet or other portable device, on the other hand, gives the user continuous ability to look around freely. One downside, however, is that it’s not a hands-free option. To work around this, Schneider Electric’s software includes a feature in which the user can freeze an image and put the tablet down, still maintaining the ability to see what’s being communicated.

A second reason that Schneider Electric felt wearables were not quite ready for prime time is the cost—thousands of dollars for HoloLens glasses, for example, versus $400 for a refurbished tablet on Amazon, Gianotti says. “But with the technology of wearables improving, it’s making them more industrial environment friendly, and it’s also driving prices down,” he says. “We decided it’s time to start playing the game.”

Honeywell Process Solutions introduced both augmented and virtual reality wearables in early 2018, with a message that focused on closing the skills gap throughout industry. Introduced as part of its Honeywell Connected Plant Skills Insight Immersive Competency program, the focus was on training programs.

When Honeywell introduced intelligent wearables for industrial field workers a few months later, it did so combined with RealWear’s rugged head-mounted computing system, the first to achieve intrinsically safe certification. Skills Insight Intelligent Wearables were designed to support field service workers in hazardous locations, so they have gotten more traction in the oil and gas industry. Honeywell helped Shell, for example, deploy the RealWear HMT-1Z1 headsets in more than 10 countries around the world.

The beauty of AR is that it’s a software application that can easily adapt to the hardware depending on what type of work is being done in what type of environment. “Depending on the level of work, a mandate of hands-free may be one element,” says Veronica Turner, connected people – business development leader Americas for Honeywell Process Solutions. “Other roles do not require the employees to have their hands free, so they may go with a tablet or an intelligent phone. It’s the flexibility of the software to coexist on different types of hardware.”

But Turner also points to the benefits of the hardware, including a high-definition camera and a small monitor that, because of its placement under the wearer’s eye, acts like a 7.5-in. tablet. “Through the local memory of the device, you can store photos, manuals, plans, P&IDs—anything relevant to the job,” she says. “Using verbal commands, a person can call out documents on the device and see them on the monitor.”

External call capabilities enable the person wearing the device to place a call over a VoIP connection to connect with a secondary person and interact in real time. “The person wearing the device is able to share images in real time,” Turner explains. “At the same time, the image can be switched so the expert can share images to the person wearing the device.”

AR in food and beverage applications

Aside from maintenance activities that are relevant to any industry, Turner points to a case specific to the food and beverage industry. “Let’s say I need to troubleshoot a freezer that is condensing. I find that one of the instructions is to disconnect the cable, but I have more than one cable to disconnect and I’m not sure which it is. I can have a designated expert on call, and he can guide me through,” she explains. “I also have augmented reality, so the expert can draw onto a picture with an arrow, circle, square, or write letters—anything that can make the communication clearer.”

In the food and beverage industry, it’s fair to say that AR is in very early stages. But some companies are looking at AR as a way to drive consistency during batch changeovers and accountability among workers, Gianotti says, describing how one company was approaching the technology. “When they do a batch changeover, they need to change the recipe of the product they’re making,” he explains. “Yes, there are standards regarding ingredients for those recipes, but a lot of people have their own secret sauce, slightly modifying some components versus others.”

Long-timers like to add their own bit of flair to the recipe, so no batch is identical to another—much to the chagrin of the food company. “They wanted augmented reality to become a way to say, ‘Hey, this is the process. Go from step one to step 10 and do what the process tells you to do,’” Gianotti says. “They want to drive accountability.”

Another application comes from a machine builder looking to add AR capabilities as part of its services, Gianotti says. “They added augmented reality into their service contract,” he says. “If the end user is interested in having access to faster and safer troubleshooting and maintenance, they can buy the component of the service contract and the machine builder will install it.”

Sleeve Seal, a Rockwell partner company exhibiting at the most recent Automation Fair, showed off an AR example that demonstrated how to thread a labeling machine correctly. “One of the biggest beverage companies in the world came by, saw it, and they walked out with a verbal agreement for 18 machines,” Mulder says. “It’s not a machine issue, it’s a people issue. They saw the workforce challenge.”

The potential for AR is huge, Gianotti contends. “Five years from now, every single machine will have some type of augmented reality embedded,” he says. “There’s so much that the technology adds to maintenance, safety, efficiency of operations.”

Agile innovation

A phrase that was used at the latest Wall Street Journal Global Food Forum, “agile innovation” describes the need for food suppliers to keep up with changing demands. Healthier options could require a change in packaging, for example, which puts strain on the entire supply chain, said Glen Long, senior vice president for PMMI, during a recent episode of PMMI’s Unpacked podcast that focused on takeaways from the Global Food Forum.

“That pace of change burdens everything from the material supplier to the machinery supplier,” Long said. “All up and down the supply chain are challenges to react quickly enough and produce the product in the style and type of package that the consumer wants.”

There was always a need for CPGs and OEMs to collaborate more closely, but that need is stronger than ever. “The days of massive lines that were built to last forever and run the same product in maybe a couple sizes but run it 24/7 [are over],” Long pointed out. “[Processors] need to be flexible because you never know what the next thing is going to be.” 

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