Can digitalization boost efficiency of food facilities and producers

The global food and beverage (F&B) sector has increased in complexity over recent years as it continues to adapt to meet the need for evolving dietary requirements, improved quality and optimized sustainability.  

But, with such considerations, along with added global supply chain and energy pressures, and the need to expand or boost productivity, how can F&B businesses keep up? Here, Sandra Perletti at ABB explores the latest advances in digitalization and the pivotal role they can play in supporting the ever-complex F&B task.    

Eating food is one of our most basic needs. Yet the reality is that there is a finely tuned ecosystem of production techniques and processes behind every mouthful – and it’s becoming increasingly complex.   

A large part of this can be attributed to global changes in diet as consumers’ preferences have shifted with the rise of plant-based and health-first foods. More than ever too, consumers want to know what’s in the product they’re buying – covering everything from calories to more nebulous terms like healthy, organic and natural. The result is a manufacturing minefield as brands struggle to cater for all.   

Sustainability must be accounted for too. The global F&B system, after all, has major impacts on the environment, through carbon emissions, water abstraction, soil, water and air pollution – issues which must be tackled at pace if net zero is to be achieved. This sits alongside increased consumer demand for products that support a healthier and more sustainable lifestyle. Add to the equation volatile electricity and gas costs and it has never been more important for operators to rethink their energy approach.  

So, the challenge is – how can F&B facilities meet the evolving need to increase food production, improve quality and variety, reduce energy expenditure and optimize sustainability efforts? The good news is digitalization has – at least in part – the answer.   

The F&B sector is ripe for digitalization   

To explain the growing role of digitalization in F&B production, it’s important to first explain what it means. Put simply, digitalization refers to the smart connection of assets. These assets could include the electrification equipment which distributes power around a production facility, the heating and cooling plant, even the motors, drives and compressors which run processing machinery. With industrial IoT technology, it becomes possible to gain real-time visibility across the entire production floor and present it accessibly in order to make informed, better decisions to improve efficiency and effectiveness across all functions and departments.   

You can’t manage what you cannot measure  

To begin with, operators should never underestimate the importance of the measurement. The guiding principle is that you can’t manage what you cannot measure. Every F&B segment is different, so it is crucial to do an energy assessment to find out where your energy is going. For example, in sugar processing it is the milling and centrifuges which are most energy intensive whereas in confectionary, the conches, compressors and mixers use most of the energy.   

Installation of digital tools is simple and with them, energy use data for each piece of equipment can be captured and collated on a central dashboard for analysis. Using this data, you can set sustainability goals, realistic targets for reductions and see where further CAPEX spend may be required to upgrade outdated equipment to more efficient technology or to install new components.   

Maintaining continuous operations  

With the basics in place, F&B operators should be well placed to not only successfully exploit opportunities to make continuous improvements but mitigate issues before they happen.  

As we all know, for a busy factory or manufacturer, even a few minutes of downtime can be huge in terms of the loss of productivity. With a digital approach operators can observe the performance and health status of all assets day and night – covering everything from temperature, vibrations, partial discharges, currents, voltages, operating times, angular movements, and more – making it easy to not just detect and address an issue before it escalates into something bigger but pre-empt similar system constraints. This predictive maintenance can also extend the life of equipment, protecting the company’s assets and keeping them in service and running at their optimum for longer.  

Driving better decisions to ensure food quality  

Digitalization creates a lot of data, and this is only useful if you are analyzing it and using the insights it offers to improve the operations of your facility. With the same digitalization infrastructure as for addressing energy efficiency and by adding just a few additional sensors, you can ensure power quality is maintained to guarantee smooth product processing and ensure food quality, and you can better manage the expansion of your facility as it grows to boost capacity or add new lines.  

Future focus  

And this is just the beginning. As more F&B operators pivot to self-generation opportunities to reduce costs and gain energy security, digitalization will play an even bigger role in ensuring the seamless transition of new energy mixes. Through analytics, it will allow operators to save and distribute self-generated resources more effectively and better prepare for demand. It will also help operators to save money by timing their energy ‘buys’ and ‘sells’ whenever market conditions are optimal.  

Final food for thought  

Today’s consumers want their food to not only be different and nutritious, but sustainable and ethically sourced. Achieving this in the most sustainable and cost-effective way will require a holistic, digital approach in which all operational areas are connected to provide the insight needed to drive efficiencies, inform production techniques, and ensure energy optimization – to feed future generations.  


ABB is a technology leader in electrification and automation, enabling a more sustainable and resource-efficient future. The company’s solutions connect engineering know-how and software to optimize how things are manufactured, moved, powered and operated. Building on more than 130 years of excellence, ABB’s 105,000 employees are committed to driving innovations that accelerate industrial transformation.