Ensuring Future-Proof Production Computing Solutions
July 06, 2021
The food & beverage manufacturing sector today faces an unprecedented set of challenges.
Ever more stringent regulation places increased pressure on manufacturers to guarantee the integrity of their supply chains, with country of origin and traceability down to individual batch level – and all proofs of compliance required to be provided immediately and digitally rather than on paper some time afterwards.
Meanwhile, commercial challenges such as international trade wars, pressures on prices, and changes in import/export legislation such as those resulting from, for example, Brexit pose additional questions around ensuring the availability of fresh ingredients at the right price.
Competition from other manufacturers continues to intensify, placing further pressure on operational efficiency and heightening the need to automate – and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has added further pace to the implementation of automation projects to minimize human intervention in production facilities.
Alongside this, of course, is the ever-present challenge of ensuring safe, clean, and hygienic manufacture, resulting in fresh, tasty produce which is free from any form of physical contamination. This last point is critical as the effects of even one slip in this area can be disastrous.
Alongside ‘traditional’ media, every customer has become a source of potential criticism, ready to highlight any issues of food contamination and, through the power of social media, have it reposted, shared globally and reinforced with hugely damaging reputational and commercial ramifications.
Maintaining complete visibility and rapid issue resolution within all aspects of production is therefore critical to ensuring complete control of manufacturing and identifying any potential issues relating to, for example, maintenance or food contamination before they can have an impact.
Selecting hardware for these functions – and the software to manage it – is therefore a key operational business decision. When equipment is being designed or specified, it is vital that the correct solution is chosen in this area – especially given that any subsequent modifications will almost certainly require recertification of the entire system and process for food-safe production.
Those with the responsibility for specifying hardware and software for machine vision and other key technological functions in the food & beverage sector are typically faced with a plethora of options.
The first is to go for a complete hardware and software solution from a supplier of both types of technology for general manufacturing. This will generally be effective in the short term at least, but issues can arise when production requirements alter – for example, if a company wishes to switch to cloud-based data storage and the supplier is not able to provide a suitable software solution. In these instances, it is likely that new software may be needed and while it may well be possible for one set of third-party hardware to be compatible with another supplier’s software, this cannot be guaranteed. Even if compatibility is achievable, the system will inevitably need recertification before production can restart.
In addition, issues can arise with regard to accountability if the system is then not found to be functioning in line with requirements – with hardware and software suppliers each blaming the other and the customer stuck in the middle facing even higher costs if the whole system has to be replaced. Being tied into suppliers in this way may therefore be seen as an unattractive option.
Another alternative is to work with a smaller, specialist supplier. While these systems may sometimes be cheaper in terms of upfront costs, some of the younger companies of this kind may have little experience of addressing the specific issues associated with food & beverage production – and certainly any required modifications may be a significant undertaking. In these instances, the upfront savings are likely to be more than countered by additional costs down the line – and in any case the safety risks alone may make this type of system unattractive. Meanwhile, ongoing support from these smaller suppliers may be less readily available, while scalability may also be an issue.
Some of the larger automation companies are able to deliver complete hardware and software solutions – but these are likely to be white-labelled and are not necessarily a core area of competence for these suppliers, meaning service down the line may not be a priority (and it may in any case end up being handled indirectly by a third-party).
A better solution is to work directly with a specialist hardware provider which collaborates closely with one or more specialist independent software vendors to co-create a complete, specialist, future-proof solution, for whichever area or areas the company needs – be it process automation, quality control, edge analytics, cloud solutions, or remote access.
The theory here is that each partner sticks to their core competences while working together to ensure complete compatibility with ready scalability and adaptability for future changes in production. And given the likelihood of future mergers and acquisitions, this way is ideal as systems can be easily replicated for different facilities, anywhere in the world. Complete accountability is also ensured – not only are the hardware and software specialists committed to working together for customer benefit, but significant investment will already have been made in delivering an appropriate sector-focused solution, readily adaptable to ensure it is future-proof and therefore subject to minimal extra costs down the line.
Working in this way will bring peace of mind to system specifiers and food facility managers seeking to optimize operations in what is a rapidly changing and ever more competitive marketplace.
Advantech, through its co-creation program, works with eco-partners to provide targeted industry solutions combining best-of-breed hardware and software products into solution-ready packages aimed at providing open, future-proof, and cost-effective solutions for applications across the whole manufacturing process.