How digital transformation is shaping the food factory of the future. By Marcel Koks


The events of the last two years have shone a harsh spotlight on inefficiencies across food manufacturing operations and the wider supply chain. Many businesses have understandably struggled to adapt to ongoing disruption, unable to keep pace with ever-changing market forces and industry challenges.

Forward-thinking manufacturers are looking ahead, exploring digital transformation as a means to future-proof their operations. Buoyed by the success of recent technological investments, many of which were expedited by the pandemic, more food manufacturers are pursuing a strategy of targeted investments in smart manufacturing initiatives. We’re seeing the emergence of the factory of the future, today, underpinned by intelligent technology to help boost resilience while building more agile, flexible and efficient businesses and supply chains, able to react quickly and effectively to challenges and opportunities alike.

Smart technologies are at the forefront of these investments, with the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), autonomous vehicles in the warehouse and robotics for heavy lifting, all gradually becoming more commonplace across food manufacturing operations. The factory of the future is a connected organization, seamlessly connecting equipment, people and supply chains, making full use of sensors, remote diagnostics and Artificial Intelligence (AI) to increase efficiencies across the board.

Maintenance 4.0
Take maintenance. The concept of Maintenance 4.0 involves the capture of sensor readings in a data lake repository, applying algorithms and analytics to understand precisely why assets fail, identifying how to correct the problem before it negatively impacts operations. A move from reactive maintenance, the standard approach albeit costly in the long-term, to a preventative, condition-based strategy is a crucial shift in the quest to increase efficiencies and steal a march on the competition.

The sweet spot
Leading the charge when it comes to the factory of the future is British Sugar, the sole processor of the UK’s sugar beet crop. The business has invested £250 million over the last five years, transforming its four sugar factories into digitally-enabled manufacturing plants – factories of the future.

So complex and energy-intensive is sugar processing that effective maintenance is crucial to optimizing manufacturing capabilities. British Sugar has relied on Infor EAM for many years to support its maintenance operations, recently embracing the benefits of multi-tenant cloud. The shift helped British Sugar move from a planned maintenance model to predictive maintenance, monitoring where equipment performance is falling short so remedial action can be taken before it breaks, reducing downtime, maximizing quality and minimizing risk.

A connected enterprise
To realize the full potential of a predictive maintenance model, optimizing benefits and delivering against Industry 4.0 and IIoT principles, connectivity across British Sugar’s core systems is crucial. Because British Sugar’s sites are all in rural areas, network reliability was a real barrier to achieving a truly connected enterprise. To ensure secure, high performance, robust connectivity, the company is installing private mobile networks.

These networks are vital as British Sugar deploys Infor Mobile, which allows Infor EAM to be used by those on the shop floor. Providing access to comprehensive maintenance-focused insights at the source, or machine, Infor EAM enables British Sugar plant employees to observe, record, input and retrieve insights in the moment, rather than taking manual notes to be input via a desktop device at a convenient time. The business also uses mobile applications to contact remote specialist support at the site of respective equipment, helping to demonstrate the specifics of the issue and expediting fault resolution.

British Sugar is keen to build on its progress to date, exploring the use of AI to analyze sensor information and raise work orders automatically; supporting resource planning to refine skills utilization and uphold stringent safety parameters, and integrating with British Sugar’s ERP system to automatically order spare parts, streamline inventory and assume greater control of stock.

Safety as standard
A focus on predictive and preventative maintenance can help to raise safety standards too, maximizing automation and minimizing risk. A move away from manual processes, where human error is inevitable, makes for minimal unplanned downtime, fewer compliance issues and recalls, and less waste. AI and machine learning (ML) both have valuable roles to play in facilitating increased automation, also delivering new depths of interconnected insight across the factory and extending throughout the supply chain.

Take the issue of dynamic best before and use by dates. AI and ML capabilities help manufacturers take into account the different variables at all stages of the farm-to-fork supply chain to formulate a dynamic shelf life for each product.

This involves the condition monitoring of ingredients and finished products, both upstream and downstream, looking at storage and transportation times and conditions pre-, during and post-production, as well as raw ingredient quality profiling and examining what will happen to the product once it reaches the retailer. IIoT devices are perfect for this approach, measuring the vital variables and feeding this crucial information back into intelligent systems for analysis to determine optimum use by or best before dates, which are aligned to the specific quality attributes of an individual batch of products.

Information is key
Endeavors such as these help to reduce the staggering amount of food that’s wasted on a daily basis and result in real benefits for the manufacturer too. The granularity and visibility of information available can deliver the depths of foresight needed to better inform planning and sourcing decisions, enabling manufacturers to dynamically change the recipe, or investigate alternative sources of ingredients.

Digital transformation is not about investing in technology for technology’s sake, rather taking an incremental approach, determining where the major gains are to be made and starting there. Through a deliberate strategy of targeted technological investments, food manufacturers can lay the foundations for a truly connected factory of the future. The right combination of technologies will optimize operations, building agile, efficient businesses and supply chains able to meet any challenges head-on while staying ahead of the competition.

Marcel Koks
Marcel Koks is Industry & Solution Strategy Director, Food & Beverage at Infor, a global leader in business cloud software specialized by industry. Infor develops complete solutions for its focus industries. Infor’s mission-critical enterprise applications and services are designed to deliver sustainable operational advantages with security and faster time to value. Over 60,000 organizations in more than 175 countries rely on Infor’s 17,000 employees to help achieve their business goals.