The Smart Food Revolution

The Smart Food Revolution

For food and beverage companies wondering about smart machines, ask your OEM about these three factors to find out if smart machines can help you.

By Steve Mulder, North America packaging segment lead, and Damon Sepe, North America process segment lead, Rockwell Automation

Smart machines and equipment can play a key role in helping food and beverage producers overcome the many obstacles and demands that come with satisfying changing consumer preferences. A smart machine — which generally means one that’s leveraging data and information to improve performance — can bring unprecedented flexibility, increased productivity and cutting-edge efficiency to the plant floor.

Despite this potential, adoption of smart machines by food and beverage companies has been gradual, at best. Gartner, Inc., estimates that smart machines will enter mainstream adoption by 2021, with 30% adoption by large companies.

Leaders at food and beverage companies, understandably, have questions about how these intelligent technologies can fit into their operations. Their OEM partners can help answer those questions for end users. Three factors food and beverage company leaders should ask about include:

  • Flexibility.
  • Data and Information.
  • Security and Protection.


Smart machines and equipment offer a new era of flexible production, which is especially important for food and beverage companies, because consumers want choices. Consider the proliferation of options in packaged snacks. Chips and crackers no longer are just available in family size. Consumers have their pick from snack packages to large cartons, with more options in between.

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This modern appetite for variety means food and beverage companies need machines that do more, faster — without adding production lines for each new product. That means more frequent changeovers, effective batch and recipe management tools, using the same machine for multiple jobs and being flexible enough to meet future consumer demands.

Technology solutions such as independent cart technology (ICT) and robotics can provide flexibility on a production line.

ICT provides the foundation for intelligent conveyance systems — advanced and efficient alternatives to conventional systems. They can safely and efficiently manage many carts across a network of linear motors. Using ICT, some OEMs have reduced changeovers from 45 minutes to just 1 minute. Overall, ICT minimizes complications and reduces time to market.

Robotics also can offer more flexibility to end-of-the-line operations, such as packaging. Smart machines based around a single control system with robotic controls can support faster communication of control, safety and process information and more accurate control of machine movements.

In addition, advances in scalable batch and recipe management tools allow food companies to build more flexible production lines. In the past, a line may have been dedicated to a single product, but companies can now easily and efficiently change recipes on the same line.

Data and Information

The primary difference between smart machines and traditional machines is information. By tying into an Ethernet-based network, smart machines can deliver invaluable, standardized data that food and beverage companies can use to optimize overall operations. Producers can use that information to improve decision-making around product stocking, delays in changeovers and more.

Smart machines also open the option of storing data in the cloud, which is becoming more cost-effective and easier to manage.

Sensor technology helps OEMs design self-aware machines that can monitor their own key components and environmental conditions. This level of machine monitoring also facilitates preventive maintenance, supported by the OEM. Machines can consist of both wired and wireless sensors, allowing production lines to produce products more reliably and efficiently.

Working closely with their OEM, food and beverage producers also can deploy mobile devices to connect with smart machines. This can eliminate the need for operators to stand close to machines, allowing them to multitask while maintaining digital access to monitor and control their machinery.

Security and Protection

Security is a normal concern for new users of digital production technology. With new equipment and exposed data, food and beverage company leaders naturally worry that proprietary information could accidentally leak outside the organization or be stolen by bad actors.

The good news is that security and safety are fundamental elements in the design of smart machines. Using a defense-in-depth (DiD) approach, robust security helps protect intellectual property, physical and human assets, and the environment. The DiD approach assumes any one point of protection can and likely will be defeated, using layers of security through physical, electronic and procedural safeguards. 

Data protection isn’t the only safety to think about when considering implementing smart machines. Physical safety in production facilities also can be improved with the integration of a smart machine through safety-system diagnostics that can alert operators when an issue within the system exists.

Operators can resolve system issues before they present a risk to safety. As a proactive measure, data on equipment concerns can be collected and stored over time to compare and identify trends across sites, allowing operators to take preventive steps to protect physical safety and enhance their interactions with machines. This could include allowing operators to service machines while still in motion.

Keep Up

Food and beverage companies no longer have the luxury of sticking with the status quo. The market is full of fierce competition, and those hesitant to adopt and introduce new technology are falling behind. Smart machines and equipment can help producers keep up with — and win — the market.




The Journal From Rockwell Automation and Our PartnerNetwork™ is published by Putman Media, Inc.

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