Suzanne Callander reports on the digitalisation of confectionery plants, exploring how and why confectionery manufacturers should be preparing to set out on a digital journey
The view often conjured up by thoughts of a smart, digitalised factory is one of a pristine green field site with all the latest technologies in place. In reality, however, most confectionery production plants will consist of a host of different equipment of differing ages, along unconnected lines and using a wide variety of technologies and differing levels of capability.
Importantly though, this should not pose a barrier to reaping the benefits of digitalisation. Any plant can become a smart plant. The key to success is having the ability to capture data from right across the plant to offer insight into plant performance, downtimes and energy efficiency. Fundamentally, it requires the adoption of automation at the equipment level and requires the presence of a standardised operational technology communication network infrastructure which is able to capture data, analyse it and most importantly, turn it into usable information.
Before embarking on any digitalisation project, it is important to firstly consider what success will look like. What improvements are you trying to make? Next, it is important to look at the level of automation and network infrastructure that already exists within the plant and whether that will meet the needs of the project. Equally, the vision of the final goal should be considered – how far are you aiming to travel along the road to digitalisation?
Successful digitalisation projects will be those that have considered the levels of investment required and which focus on the automation and network infrastructure required to capture and make good use of data.
To maintain competitiveness, confectioners should be constantly looking for new ways to increase productivity and efficiency without compromising product quality. For many, there is a belief that collecting data from their processes will make this task easier. Tim Hellwig, Head of Service at Theegarten-Pactec GmbH & Co. KG and Managing Director of SweetConnect – an initiative established to drive, shape, and support the digitalising of the confectionery industry – points out that, in reality, the production process involves so many moving components, machines of different ages and from different manufacturers, that collecting useful data can be a challenge because incomplete datasets can render the data unusable or – even worse – can lead to misinterpretations.
So, how should we connect machines? What data is worth collecting? And how can data be used to improve the current conditions? “All too often companies find themselves developing software, setting up infrastructure, connecting machines and interpreting data. What is actually needed, however, is an industry-wide solution, so confectioners can focus on doing what they do best – producing confectionery,” says Tim. “Realising that no one was going to solve the industry’s problems for us, Theegarten-Pactec joined forces with other machine manufacturers, confectionery producers, industry networks and the academic sector to together shape and drive the digitalisation of the industry and SweetConnect was born.”
SweetConnect is digital platform created for the production of confectionery. It employs software that is focussed on meeting the needs of the confectionery sector and which is able to turn data into useable information. It utilises a combination of digital tools to increase performance, lower costs, ensure consistent quality and reduce unplanned downtimes. “The bottom-line is that gathering data alone is not enough and putting it to use effectively requires more than an individual company can stem. It takes the entire industry to digitalise the industry, and a broad mix of competencies working hand-in-hand to show effect. And that is what SweetConnect is,” says Tim.
According to Laura Kossmann, Sales & Marketing, Makat Candy Technology GmbH, a Syntegon company, the advantages of digital solutions became particularly apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic. If they had not done so before, manufacturers increasingly installed monitoring devices to reduce operator interventions on the shopfloor.
Discussing digitalisation benefits, Laura says: “In addition to product safety and hygienic processes, digital solutions will improve transparency in production – a crucial prerequisite for anyone wanting to optimise their processes. Digital monitoring tools provide information on the machine status and output. This, in turn, enables service experts from equipment suppliers to take the appropriate maintenance measures at an early stage. Many confectionery brands today rely on professional services and solutions that help them efficiently resume production and ensure reliable processes after adapting the equipment to changing product requirements – for example for sugar-free recipes.”
Laura believes that digital adoption is speeding up across the confectionery industry. Production lines are featuring ever more digital options, and machine suppliers are enhancing their portfolio and services. To tap into the full potential of digital services – including preventive maintenance and production monitoring – new machines need to be Internet of Things (IoT) ready and should feature appropriate connectivity tools, while existing machines need to be retrofitted with additional data-gathering sensors. Systems equipped with interfaces to add connectivity can offer a variety of solutions throughout the entire machine lifecycle that help optimise production processes and sustainably increase the Overall Equipment Effectiveness (OEE).
The availability of packaging machines is said to be one of the most influential factors behind efficient production. Today, the key to higher machine availability is the targeted evaluation of digital machine data to effect improvements in process and performance. For confectionery manufacturers this can lead to less unplanned downtime, less waste, less resource consumption and therefore more sustainable production.
According to Uwe Galm, Head of Customer Services at Schubert, increased awareness of sustainability issues has triggered one of the strongest trends shifts in the packaging industry. But it isn’t just the selection and layout of packaging materials that is important. The more efficient and streamlined a packaging process is, the more sustainably a manufacturer can produce. “Where there are hiccups in processes, or performance is lower than expected, may not always be visible at first glance. With a structured analysis of machine data, however, weak points in the process can be quickly detected, errors can be eliminated retroactively, or overall performance optimisation can be carried out via OEE analysis,” says Uwe.
A further advantage of data evaluation is that, in addition to information about the packaging machine itself, the influences of upstream and downstream equipment or processes can also be identified – for example, the quantity of products in the infeed. “Data evaluation also allows a look into the future: With comprehensive monitoring, the operating hours of the packaging line and its individual system components can be read precisely, wear can be detected early, and irregularities can be assessed based on limit values and parameters,” continues Uwe. “This basic data can be used to create a plan for the preventive maintenance of machine components (predictive maintenance) – reducing unplanned downtime to a minimum.”
Supply chain benefits
Ever increasing regulations and standards affecting the confectionery industry simply add to the case for digitalisation of the entire food supply chain, argues Ian Scott-Mance, Technology Manager at Mettler-Toledo ProdX.
“There are benefits to be had for all through a realisation of this transformation,” he says, despite many being hesitant. “A move from manual track and trace to digital is coming and it could be good for business! Indeed, with legislators and retailers starting to insist on digital transparency in the food supply chain, it is not an exaggeration to say it will be critical to the continued existence of confectioners.”
The first step, of course, is data collection. This data must then be shared throughout the supply chain. However, the latter cannot happen if the data does not exist in an accessible form.
The concept of information sharing is critical to the success of digital track and trace – enabling the identification of the whereabouts of specific batches at any given time in the past or present, in a matter of seconds. However, digital food chain transparency has already been shown by early adopters to benefit manufacturers.
Blockchain is a chain of linked blocks of data records, each bearing a cryptographic hash of the previous block. Once data is recorded in a block, this then becomes part of the cryptographic hash in the next block, so data cannot be altered retroactively without changing all subsequent blocks that show that data. It essentially creates a digital ledger of transactions that is duplicated and distributed across a network of participating computer systems. The technology is secure and incorruptible. Systems, devices and sensors that are capable of automated machine-to-machine communication can all become part of a blockchain system.
How should confectionery manufacturers start to develop a digital food supply chain? Ian’s advice is to start auditing the nature of the food transformation data gathered in the plant and investigate whether the necessary data is being collected for digital track and trace at batch level.
Next, look strategically at how this data is collected and stored – analogue technology must be replaced with digital; if possible, manual processes need to be automated; data held on local servers should be migrated to a data hub on the premises or to the Cloud. Then start talking to blockchain technology providers to get a feel for the issues at stake and what can be achieved. IBM is currently the front runner, but there are other potential providers.
Finally, consider how to oversee the cultural changes that implementing this digital transformation will require within the organisation.
Ian believes that many confectionery manufacturers will find – perhaps to their surprise – that they are already in a good position to embark upon a process of transformation. The technology may seem complex, but its implementation is relatively straightforward. The change of culture, however, will need to be carefully managed. Staff will need to understand and accept that, within the blockchain, other organisations will have visibility of their company’s data. The transparency will be real and immutable. Leadership will be required to drive change and demonstrate commitment.
Amidst the talk of blockchains and connectivity it is important not to lose sight of what this technological transformation of the supply chain is all about. It is about providing a system in which batches of product can be quickly tracked and traced, and in which critical actions taken by companies dealing with that food in the supply chain can be proven and trusted. Ultimately, it is about demonstrating that the necessary due diligence has been shown along the supply chain – from farm to fork – to deliver safe confectionery products to the consumer.
Editor: Kiran Grewal firstname.lastname@example.org