How Technology is Transforming the Food and Beverage Industry

It’s 5 am at a bakery in Wales. The smell of freshly baked bread hangs heavy in the air as fluffy loaves race along congested conveyor belts. Shiny metallic arms slice and wrap bread, while a machine datestamps each loaf, before carefully dropping them into a delivery container. For the unsuspecting, everything seems to be running smoothly. 

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However, it’s been a cold night and the bread mix – usually proved at a temperature of 34°C – hasn’t risen properly. While the factory may have only dropped a few degrees, the entire batch is ruined. The morning delivery has to be delayed. Production has to start from scratch.

Going forward

This is just one example of how food and beverage manufacturers need reliable and consistent automation to plug leaks that threaten the supply chain.  Whether this means predicting conveyer belt collisions, tweaking temperatures or personalising products, we need smart technology to make production more productive, efficient and agile.

But what does this technology look like? And how can we expect it to boost productivity in the future?  We sat down with Keith Thornhill, Head of Food and Beverage at Siemens, to discuss the future impact of technology on the F&B industry.

Hi Keith, thanks for your time today. Let’s get started by talking about innovation in the F&B sector.  Where do you see the biggest technological advancements taking place?

The real innovation we are seeing along the supply chain at the minute is in logistics-based technology and connectivity systems.

We’ve already seen some unbelievable logistics-based technology being deployed at conglomerates, where each of their systems has the potential to disrupt the market. With these kind of companies, they don’t just buy in new, shiny robots and automation technology and call it a day; their onus is having a clear vision on building an “interconnected” business, of which includes both humans and robots.

The difference between what should be happening and what is happening should now be one and the same.

Is there any specific technology at the minute which can “connect the dots” for F&Bs?

Yes. The technology at the minute is centred around creating a “digital thread” from the very beginning until the very end of production.

If you look at a food factory, there is the product R&D stage for the formulation, and then the scale up into production, packaging and logistics. This is when you’ll be asking questions such as: How many can we make an hour? How many do we have to produce to satisfy the order? Will we make any money? You’ll also be planning the artwork, labelling and branding at this stage; we digitalise all that so that the process can be clearly visualised, ratified and mapped out.

With this digital thread, however, you can check that all of these areas will go to plan before any resources are used in the real world. You can predict that you’ll be doing 100 packs per minute and you’ll be satisfied that you’re operating as efficiently as possible.

Any problems you run into during the digital planning stages will have their own digital footprint so you can easily identify them. The difference between what should be happening and what is happening should now be one and the same. If it isn’t, then you have to continually improve the process in order to rectify the larger problems.

This is what we mean by “closing the loop” and is the basis of our Digital Twin philosphy at Siemens.

How do you see technology being used in the F&B sector in the future?

The whole point of technology is that it should make humans not just approach tasks differently, but make them think differently too.

Unfortunately, a lot of F&B companies will take a piece of technology and use it to simply make a task a little bit easier. This is fine, but it will only create a gradual change to how a business performs. What technology should be able to do is radically change how we do things. As a sector, I’d say we’re a long way off where we need to be.

As it stands, I’m not too sure there are many companies out there with end-to-end connectivity as their vision. They know technology is going to make a difference, of course, but they only see it in terms of how that is going to benefit their next delivery, rather than how it will affect them in five to ten years’ time.

We are all aware that products like sugar, soft drinks and baked goods are characterised by tight regulations – the recent sugar tax being one of them. How can F&B manufacturers use technology to adapt to these changing demands?

This is a tough one, as legislation and innovation typically don’t go hand-in-hand. As it stands, the health and safety inspector decides what’s legal for your company and you have to abide by it; that’s the long and short of it.

Legislation is not in a position to react to the next new technology.

The trouble occurs, of course, when innovation is proposed. While the innovation might boost productivity and change the game, the legislation that you have to follow is still of today’s world, not tomorrow’s world. As a result, the legislation is not in a position to react to the next new technology, and innovation has to be postponed.

As you say with the sugar tax, this new legislation comes in and F&Bs are told to reduce sugar content in their products. On the face of it, that sounds fantastic from a health point of view. What isn’t considered, however, is how this will impact the food or drink itself - not only of the taste but maybe the viscosity isn’t the same; maybe it doesn’t flow or melt as expected, etc. All of a sudden, production is a disaster. Now we’ve got a situation where all the pipes which used to flow through nicely are now all clogged up, or the curing time has increased, or the product quality through to the consumer has had a number of product recalls.

So, why do problems like this occur? Because nobody really knows the impact of small changes until they’ve tried it themselves. Luckily, this is where technology is starting to accelerate.

Is this sort of predictability a gap that technology will fill in the future?

Definitely. It is for instances such as this, where control of multiple variables come into play, that we need technology. Not only does it make things more efficient, but it also helps manufacturers to understand all the facets of their production line in real-time.

A robot might locate a collision, for example, and think of all possible scenarios - What were the conditions like? What was the mix like? How has it changed? – as soon as it happens. And then they could change their system to solve the problem automatically, before any resources go to waste or any orders have to be tossed in the bin.

That’s good to know. There is still the issue of cyber security, of course…

This is a very crucial topic and is one that is often highlighted as a reason not to adopt a Digital Enterprise phlisophy. But like with most things, the only way to gain confidence is by doing the act and witnessing the benefits.

That’s why businesses need to put the correct infrastructure in place to build a more secure digital space which will, in turn, allow the business to flourish. The secure supplier also needs to understand your business vision, and should be on hand to lend their expertise whenever necessary (for example, when guiding you through the technology deployment stage).

To this end, Siemens have already begun maximising their cyber security and, as a result, we are the leading automation firm to be accredited with a cyber security TÜV SÜD standard. We also have our own Product CERT, where customers can access all the latest information on Siemens products. Today, we employ nearly 500 people on cyber security to ensure the most secure digital systems are available across in the world.

With so much data flying around the factory floor, how do you propose F&Bs use this data to their benefit?

Through the cloud. At Siemens, we have MindSphere, which is our vessel for storing information. The collection of data is very basic, but it’s what we do with the data that can be really transformative.

With MindSphere, we take the data and analyse its impact in terms of how each element reacts to one another. We can take data from the cloud to look at how the weather patterns that day affect how fast bread proves, for example, where the hot spots in the oven are, or the skill level of the operators who are working. Using this information, it can see links between the different elements and locate issues before they occur. With a system like this, you can truly start to optimise your production line and, then, become more profitable with little intervention.

You talk about how technology can take the guesswork out of production, but changing personal preferences might make this a difficult task. How do you see technology working around individual customers in the future?

Firstly, customisation will be huge in F&B. Online food shopping is just one of those experiences, where you, the customer, are putting your individual data into a system. The retailers then use this data to offer you more of what you like. In a typical shop, on the other hand, they stock only what they think the majority of shoppers are interested in buying. While this isn’t game-changing right now, we can see that, in the future, it might become even more granular than just online food shopping. 

The whole supply chain at the moment is based around over-production.

Personalised nutrition could be a huge initiative in the future, where data is used to give consumers a bespoke product. For instance, those with diabetes could get specialist products for their specific condition from any outlet, all at the click of a button.

Do you think that food/drink manufacturing will be entirely on-demand in the future?

It has to be. The whole supply chain at the moment is based around over-production.

In food production currently, we are wasting around 25 per cent of crops, purely because we are creating products without a specific end-user in mind. Goods are being designed based on last year’s trends, and that’s just not going to satisfy the consumer who is constantly changing their preferences.

In fact, with society being the way it is and trends changing so much more rapidly now than ever before, it’s difficult for any manufacturer to truly be ahead of the game.

The only way to conquer this is with real-time data collection. Not only will this help manufacturers more accurately forecast what is going to happen in the supply chain, it will also give them access to individual customer needs, thereby “closing the loop” on production. Without real-time data collection, we will inevitably continue on the way we are going: with unsustainable waste mountains stifling productivity.

At Siemens we’re on our own digitalisation journey and sharing our learnings with the industry. To find out more, request a tour of our Congleton factory here.

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