Satisfying the most tricky of customers

Jan 18, 2012 | Food Processing & Packaging

Keith Thornhill, business development manager for Siemens Industry Automation & Drive Technologies, says that by implementing standardisation and flexible production, food manufacturers will be able to meet the challenges presented by the supermarkets

For manufacturers looking to sell their produce, the supermarket is king. In order to keep pace with consumer demands, each supermarket will specify how they receive product, in what format and package, which means manufacturers have to find a way a way of meeting these needs easily and efficiently and remain competitive. The focus on cost brings with it a number of challenges to manufacturers, and they should look to invest in the right areas to ensure they are best-placed to meet the varied nature of a supermarket customer base.

The starting point for any manufacturer should be to consider their site’s whole lifecycle costs and the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) of both the machinery and its interaction into plant. When building a new plant or line or enhancing an existing one, there will often be several OEMs supplying individual machines to add to the line. Invariably this means a multitude of different control systems, components, software and methods of interfacing to the operator and plant, as each task in the production line is dealt with individually.

This approach can lead to three potential issues. Firstly, various control system architectures for machines and interfaces at the plant can lead to lower efficiency, as maintenance staff and operators have to work with, and be trained on, a range of machines.

Secondly, costs are higher because of a substantial spare parts inventory and the increased need for training of maintenance staff.

Finally, by not being able to network the individual components within the machine or network the machines together, manufacturers will never be able to get the data required in a real time format to monitor machine performance and improve operational efficiency. Without this it is difficult to know where to focus improvements, as there is no starting point in terms of productivity.

Higher line efficiency, reduced training costs and less capital tied-up in stock can be achieved by applying a standardisation strategy called Optimised Packaging Line (OPL).

OPL standardisation strategy from Siemens can be applied in five steps:

1. Hardware and software standardisation based on line/plant requirements

2. Generate site automation specification

3. Network architecture for machine and line/plant

4. Utilise standard data interfaces between machine and plant

5. Develop operator visualisation, communications, diagnostics and data backup & recovery specification.

Initial investment in this approach will soon reap rewards as the machines move from an initial CAPEX investment process to an OPEX phase.

Once the components are networked, downtime is reduced as intuitive diagnostics mean maintenance staff are alerted proactively via email or text as soon as a piece of equipment needs attention, rather than waiting for it to fail. Less downtime means saving costs associated with lost production, and also increases productivity as the line will operate for longer. The operations and maintenance staff on site will also work more efficiently as they will be using common operating concepts.

Training costs will also be reduced through standardisation. The implementation of a repeated engineering and operating philosophy throughout a site as part of the totally integrated solution and use of common parts in the system, means staff do not need to learn various operating procedures for several machines.

A standardised approach also means manufacturers can develop a flexible production line more easily. All the elements of the line are networked together so it is simpler to implement any changes. This flexibility in production helps meet the varied needs of the supermarkets. For instance, one supermarket may wish for a product in a six-pack while another may want it in a larger quantity. Also, different supermarkets may specify different packaging displays for the packs, so the production line has to be fully adaptable.

Developing long-term contracts and working in partnerships with supermarkets is important as this allows the creation of a fully sustainable supply and demand chain between supermarkets and manufacturers.

Companies will be able to streamline production systems to ensure they continue to meet the needs of the supermarkets they supply with minimal need to constantly adapt processes. In addition, when companies know they have a long-term contract with a supermarket, finance teams will be more willing to ring-fence the investment in the technology required to help them maintain demand for the supermarket.

The backbone of automation technologies play an important role in providing the level of flexibility of production required. For instance, sensors, vision systems, robotics, drives, motion and PLCs networked both horizontally and vertically within a production facility is essential to ensure the reliability of machinery and the communication between machines and the plant to flexibly control production.

The automation technology is already available to allow flexible production and achieve greater operational efficiency benefits, but in many instances the short-termism of investment is stopping some manufacturers from implementing the changes. To make a step change, manufacturing and technology companies need to be in partnership to drive the innovation and investment required to meet the differing requirements of the supermarkets.