“Some people will look at digital transformation as oh, let’s implement a bot, or let’s implement AI, or let’s implement IOT,” says Dherman. “But actually, people are looking at digital transformation as moving off Excel, right?”
As Dherman points out, centralized data has become a critical piece of operations for a number of reasons. With more employees working from home due to the pandemic, having Excel files flying around via email can lead to two different people looking at two different sets of data when they’re supposed to be looking at the same thing. Centralization also helps processors standardize operations across multiple facilities to ensure that each location is operating in an efficient manner.
“Everybody’s looking to cut costs,” says Dherman. “But in terms of cutting costs they don’t want to disturb their customers, because obviously you want to cut costs but keep customer satisfaction. So what are the other ways that food manufacturers can cut costs?”
Focusing on improving operations and showing successes is an important aspect of getting employee and leadership buy-in for new implementations and upgrades. Josh Eastburn, director of technical marketing for Opto 22, a partner member of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA), cites the example of Marigold Manufacturing Corporation (MMC), which owns the Mama Sita’s brand of Filipino condiments and sauces.
MMC hired P&E Automation Technology Solutions to set up utilities monitoring systems at a new plant. P&E turned to Opto 22’s groov EPIC edge programmable industrial controller to collect and deliver utility data to a central database, as well as provide it in a mobile form for plant supervisors. MMC liked the results of that project so much that it hired P&E to integrate all of the plant’s PLC systems, regardless of manufacturer, into a single production control and monitoring system. Now, the company can manage its production process as a single system.
“Marigold can program the system using one engineering package, and as the facility expands, additional equipment can be added to process lines and integrated into this system regardless of PLC brand,” says Eastburn. “In time, they intend to build an end-to-end business intelligence system.”
Adopting and adapting for the future
Part of the relatively slow adoption of automation in the food and beverage industry has to do with concerns over robots replacing employees, says Fontaine. But when done properly, food and beverage processors are learning the same thing other industries have learned: automation and robotics supplement workforces; they do not replace them entirely.
Fontaine cites the example of food processors having a hard time recruiting and retaining employees to do repetitive jobs that often lead to repetitive strain or other injuries. Those jobs also have a high turnover rate and often create headaches such as OSHA incidents or workman’s comp claims.
“This creates a revolving door of employees and that means constant recruiting, hiring, training, and human errors associated with high turnover,” says Fontaine. “Not to mention the administrative costs.”
But if those jobs are simply doing the same thing over and over, they can be automated or filled by robots. That doesn’t mean human employees aren’t needed; operators are still necessary to run machines or work with and program robots. And equipment needs to be maintained and repaired, creating demand for employees with maintenance skills as opposed to low-skill labor such as picking and placing.
So far, Ken’s Foods has automated its Southborough, Mass. distribution facility, and is working on doing the same with another facility that will be built in Georgia. Product in the automated warehouse comes off the production line and moves throughout the warehouse without the need for employee handling until it’s loaded on the truck. But that doesn’t mean there’s no role for employees; materials such as packaging and ingredients still have to be received, managed and loaded at the proper steps of the process.
As more companies in the food and beverage industry move off of legacy systems and methods, they’ll face the same growing pains other industries have faced as they went through similar transitions. The most common—and potentially most fatal to the success of a digital transformation—is getting employee buy-in. It’s natural for employees to be resistant to major changes in how they do their jobs, even if it can be shown to be a better way.
“The hardest part is the implementation,” says Carr. “Getting the business to participate, to move away from, what have I done the last 20, 25 years, 35 years, whatever that number may be, and embrace something new and change.”
To combat that, Carr and Sebastiano focused on breaking the project up into small pieces that could be implemented step-by-step, with each successful piece being a building block for the next piece. That helped get buy-in from not only management, but also line employees that the system would be a tool they could use to do their jobs in a better way, not a threat to their employment or a confusing, complicated system they wouldn’t be able to master.
“When you see and have done things in different ways, in different industries, you bring a different perspective in, but you also have to realize that focusing on whether you have the perfect solution for everyone in all areas is really not relevant because the future is always changing,” says Sebastiano. “What really is relevant is getting people to buy into what needs to be done and adapting to change, and that's where the culture aspect becomes the most critical thing to any implementation that you're going to do. You can follow the checkboxes, you can follow Waterfall or Agile methodology, but at the end of the day, it's the culture that needs to accept it, they need to embrace it, and they need to move forward with it, and you need to figure out how to go about doing it differently each time in order to be successful there.” FE